Boosting holiday food safety through consumer education
In just a few short weeks, people across the country will sit down to Thanksgiving dinner. A few weeks after that, families will gather again for a variety of holiday celebrations. While these gatherings will take many different forms, there’s one thing they all have in common: food. Not only do avid cooks pull out all of the stops to show off their culinary prowess, but even people who rarely cook the rest of the year dust off their cookbooks and don aprons.
The United States’ food supply is consistently recognized as one of the safest in the world. As the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) continues to roll out, our food supply is getting even safer.
Food safety: The trust gap
The challenge for the food industry is that consumers don’t see it that way. A 2018 survey by The Center for Food Integrity found that only 33% of consumers strongly agree with the statement “I’m confident in the safety of the food I eat.” That’s down from 47% in 2017.
The survey also found that consumers hold federal regulatory agencies and food companies most responsible for ensuring safe food, but don’t trust them to do so. Out of 11 sources of information about food safety, consumers ranked federal regulatory agencies eighth and food companies dead last. In addition, only half of consumers trust food produced in the United States more than food produced elsewhere.
There are many things food companies can do to close the trust gap. Top among them is increasing transparency, a topic we’ll address in an upcoming article. Here, we focus on a powerful but underused strategy: providing food safety education. As people come together to celebrate, concerns about how to keep their families safe and avoid ruining the holiday dinner are top of mind. Providing safety information their customers need can help companies nurture relationships and build trust.
Educating consumers about food safety
Food recalls get a lot of media attention, which is likely one reason trust in food safety is declining. But although pathogen contamination makes juicy headlines, it isn’t the main reason people get sick.
Why educate: The shared responsibility for food safety
Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli (the top causes of pathogen-related recalls) can all be killed by thorough cooking. But the leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States isn’t any of these — it’s norovirus. Specifically, it’s norovirus spread during food preparation and service. A 2012 study by the CDC found that sick food handlers were the source of 53% of norovirus outbreaks and may have contributed to as many as 82%. And according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 30-40% of foodborne illnesses are due to poor hygienic practices in the home.
Food companies clearly have a responsibility to ensure that their operations adhere to the highest standards of food safety and that the products that leave their facilities are safe for consumption. The numbers above suggest that there’s an additional opportunity to keep people from getting sick by educating them about safe food handling and preparation.
Let’s look at a couple of examples of companies that are taking the lead in educating consumers about food safety, as well as some resources you can use in your own campaigns
How to educate: Examples and resources
Undercooked turkey is a major potential source of Salmonella contamination. The risk of an incident amplifies on Thanksgiving, as around 50 million turkeys are consumed every year.
Butterball, one of the country’s largest producers of turkey products, is a leader in providing consumer education to ensure everyone has a safe and happy holiday. Since 1981, the company has opened its Turkey Talk Line every holiday season. Today, the line is staffed by 50+ experts who field more than 100,000 turkey-cooking questions every year.
As both a processor and a retailer, Walmart has a significant interest in ensuring the safety of its customers. In a 2014 article on Food Navigator, Walmart VP of food safety (and soon-to-be FDA deputy commissioner for food policy and response) Frank Yiannas, detailed two of the company’s consumer food safety education initiatives:
- Walmart TV — Many stores have TVs in the checkout lanes. During peak cooking times, including Thanksgiving, those TVs air food safety videos.
- Walmart High Five program — The company developed a graphic highlighting the five top principles of safe food handling and preparation, which they use online, in-store, and on their private label food products.
With all of the information available online today, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Here are three resources food companies can tap into to develop their own food safety education programs.
- Partnership for Food Safety Education’s FightBAC! — FightBAC! is a consumer food education campaign based on the four core practices of clean, separate, cook, and chill. The public-private non-profit’s list of partners comprises some of the country’s biggest food companies, retailers, industry associations, and the FDA. The website hosts many free resources, including holiday food safety videos, activities, and downloads.
- FDA’s Holiday Food Safety Page — In addition to the FightBAC! materials, this page also contains a Spanish-language food safety video, information about RTE foods, and links to resources including the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition Education Resource Library and Food Facts for Consumers.
- USDA’s Thanksgiving Toolkit to Prevent Foodborne Illness — This toolkit includes fact sheets, blog articles, social media posts, videos, and more resources to educate consumers about how to properly cook a turkey and store the leftovers.
Food safety is a shared responsibility, requiring the participation of government, companies, and consumers. Providing consumers with the information they need to prevent foodborne illness is an important step companies can take to ensure all these groups are working in concert.
To learn more about current food safety topics, including how to deal effectively with product recalls and what tools you can use to achieve compliance with food safety regulations, join us in Chicago next February for the American Food Sure Summit. Book before November 21 and get a Thanksgiving 2 for 1 — register yourself and a colleague for just $995.