Special edition: Risk communication

How to manage media over meat contamination

By Jess Halliday

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food standards agency, Ireland

Prompt public communication, acknowledgement of real and perceived risks, and control of stigma are key to effective management of food safety crisis, says a team of experts investigating lessons from two dioxin crises.

Belgium and Ireland have both been hit by dioxin meat contamination scandals in recent years. In Belgium contaminated fat in animal feed in 1999 led to high levels of dioxins in chicken and egg products; in Ireland routine dioxin testing of animal feed in December 2008 led to a recall of Irish pork.

Writing in the Sage journal Public Understanding of Science, the experts, led by Douglas Powell, associate director of food safety at Kansas State University, said management of the two cases “presents a stark contrast between good and bad crisis management”.

The Belgian case is held up as an example of poor management and communication, whereas the Irish case is presented as an example of a more effective approach that minimised the long-term impact.

The comparison led them to develop the three-pronged model for effective management of future food crises:

  • Prompt communications with the public
  • Acknowledgement of both real and perceived risks
  • Control of stigma surrounding a hazardous incident

They say that although a crisis will inevitably result in economic loss, that loss of trust and confidence can be minimised by effective crisis communication and management.

The approach is not billed as “an all-encompassing crisis management plan​”, but it “may be an effective tool for future crisis managers to use in limiting the damage to industries involved in a crisis.”

Lessons from Belgium

The paper criticises the Belgian government for failing to inform the public of the contamination for a whole month after it became aware of the problem, leading the media to conclude that it had tried to “cover up” the problem to protect farming interests.

Moreover, information on the scale of the risk was not made available until 5 days after a press release was finally issued, leading to a perception that the risk was far greater than eventually determined by scientists.

And while most EU and many non-EU countries imposed bans on importing Belgian product, claims by the now discredited government of confidence and optimism in the safety of produce from farms that had not received contaminated feed were largely ignored.

The crisis led to considerable economic loss, dented public confidence in food safety, and political crisis: the agriculture and public health ministers resigned and, just before a general election editorials were published claiming that the prime minister was not fit to run the country.

Lessons from Ireland

In contrast to the Belgian authorities, the Irish government made public statements about the dioxin contamination on the very day tit received positive samples and immediately removed from sale all pork products from pigs slaughtered in Ireland.

The media compared the problem to the BSE crisis of the 1990s; however Food Standards Agency Ireland (FSAI) explained that although dioxin levels were 80-200 times the safe limits, exposure to such levels for short periods was not likely to lead to adverse health effects.

The government also mandated that all pork products from animals that had not received contaminated feed should carry a special label stating that they had no association with the contamination and were safe to consume.

“Consumers were so comforted by the Irish government’s explanations of the low level of risk from the contamination that many were confused as to why the pork was even recalled, and accused the government of Ireland of over-reacting,”​ wrote Powell and colleagues.

Source

Public Understanding of Science 2011 20:261

DOI: 10.1177/0963662509355737

Government management of two media-facilitated crises involving dioxin contamination of food

Authors: Jacob, C., Lok, C., Morley, K., Powell, D.

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