News stories have been rampant the past few months about a wide variety of dangers surrounding the foods we eat. From E. coli in lettuce to carcinogens in cereals, whey in gluten free products and lead or arsenic in baby food, and more. It seems we can’t escape the news, but we can understand what’s happening, take care of our customers and families, and prepare.
Why so many scary food scares?
Because of all the news, consumers are left wondering if the food supply is truly safe, but the opposite is likely the story, according to food scientist Dr. Taylor Wallace. “It’s true there are more outbreaks reported, but that’s because our reporting structures are so much stronger than they used to be. Further, we are able to rapidly trace outbreaks to keep them from spreading and making more people ill.” Systems that track the prevalence in food borne illnesses in products are often stopping products from even getting to store shelves.
At the same time, there’s a heightened sensitivity around allergens and foods consumed by young children and pregnant women. It’s now believed by many, again according to Dr. Wallace, that some of these heightened sensitivities have led to allergies in children that were not as prevalent when we ate a wider variety of foods in moderation. Allergy specialists are now realizing that had these allergens been introduced to children at an earlier age, some severe reactions today would likely not occur.
Government regulators are also helping to keep our food supply safer but, with tighter budgets, often have to focus on the most egregious or damaging claims. Regulations are sufficient, and technology is improving systems across the board, but the infrastructure isn’t there to respond to claims that might seem less damaging to consumers.
Best Course for Consumers?
My grandmother was always an advocate of moderation. She lived to her 90th birthday so it seems to be good advice. Her meals, lovingly prepared and fabulous, always included protein, vegetables, starch and dessert. She and my grandfather had a cocktail before dinner. Nothing got in her way when it came to taking care of her family. Her advice of moderation seems to apply today as well.
If you suspect you’ve come in contact with tainted food and are now sick, the stop after your visit to your medical professional should be a call to your state health department. This allows them to track local outbreaks and fits within the structures of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s network. There is also a tremendous amount of information on the CDC’s website about foodborne outbreaks. Some other suggestions:
Know the source of the food you’re buying
Read labels to understand ingredients
Buy what you can from a local farmer
Follow the FDA's food safety guidelines to wash hands frequently, separate foods, cook foods thoroughly and chill properly.
Clickbait or Rumor vs Science-based and Truth
In today’s world of social media, there’s a story out there almost every minute about the food we eat, medicines we take, or supplements we’re being told to take. This plethora of information makes it challenging to separate fact from fiction. Some tips:
Read more than the headline in an article
Understand the source of the information
Review reliable sources of information like professional groups, government agencies and experts with advanced degrees from accredited programs.
Advice for Food Companies and Restaurants
Food companies need to be aware of the same concerns, but also have another set of obligations to their customers, and around the financial well-being of the company. Systems need to be in place to triple check products for food safety, and that quickly inform distributors, customers and consumers in the advent of a mistake.
Understand what is going into the products you’re selling. That includes the ingredients purchased to create them. Understand the chain of supply and what happens at each step of the way.
Plan and prepare for the unthinkable to happen. Be ready when it does and don’t wait to speak up. What happens behind the scenes is important, but your public face is also critically important today. Involve your communications team in your crisis plan and inform them immediately of any inconsistencies in the food supply before it becomes a crisis.
Independent public relations professionals are regularly needed in any crisis. There are several advantages to having outside counsel including a perspective from outside, instead of inside the company. Our team can definitely help you prepare for a crisis of any kind. At a minimum you will need:
Crisis team empowered to make decisions
System for monitoring social and traditional media
Notification system when something happens
Plan to address the issue
We’re talking about food safety today but it’s really only one type of crisis your organization could face. Things like natural disasters, legal/financial difficulties, criminal activity, and customer or employee accidents are just some others for which you should be prepared.
The biggest reason planning for a food crisis should be on your “to do” list is the speed at which seemingly small incidents can happen and explode. It’s critical the team works together efficiently when a crisis happens. That comes with preparation and practice.