Food scares can undermine consumer confidence, ruin business reputations and create unnecessary panic. If these scenarios are to be avoided, industry needs to develop more effective strategies for communicating to the public. Focusing on online media, an EU-funded project has made a significant contribution by helping to better understand how information on food risk is spread.
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The purpose of the three-year EU-funded FoodRisc project, which began in June 2010, has been to map out the networks and information sources that are used to spread information on food risks. In particular, the team has examined the potential of social media, with a view to helping risk communicators make better use of these platforms.
A number of innovative online tools have enabled the project to examine exactly how consumers react to issues. For example, an online data collecting tool called Vizzata has proved effective in uncovering reactions to content, how these reactions change over time and what people think when they are not in a group setting.
The team used this tool to conduct a recent consumer study on public reaction during the first week of the horse-meat contamination scandal breaking within Ireland and the UK. Results showed that consumers were mainly concerned that the labels did not match the contents of the products. There was, in fact, very little evidence of concern about health risks – although some wondered how government assurances about safety could be so conclusive given that the discovery of horse meat was completely unexpected.
Monitoring online activity has provided similar insights into the perception of other food-related issues, such as genetic modification and animal cloning.
Understanding consumer behaviour
"Through our research, we have found that citizens often feel quite confused due to conflicting views and contested information being presented to them regarding food risks and benefits," explains Dr Aine McConnon, FoodRisc's project manager. "The results and outputs of this project should alleviate these issues by helping those with a remit to communicate about food risks and benefits to understand citizens' views, and how best to react to these through their communications."
The project's focus on the role played by social media during a range of food crisis events has been both novel and in-depth. Crises covered have included the Irish dioxin crisis of 2008, the German dioxin crisis and E. coli outbreak of 2011 and, most recently, the horse-meat scandal, which came to light in January of this year. Here, the team studied the use of new media tools such as Twitter and blogs, looking at how much conversation was taking place online and which stakeholders were actively engaging with social media to reach consumers about such issues.
Dr McConnon adds that, as a multidisciplinary online research project, FoodRisc has been able to cross traditional disciplinary boundaries. "We have learned a lot about the potential, as well as the challenge, of working with this type of data," she says. "In addition, we have worked with a stakeholder advisory board throughout the project and interacted with a number of potential groups, including the European Food Safety Authority, to gain better insights into the practical challenges faced by industry."
The groundwork conducted by this project will now feed into the development of new online tools for more effective communication. The FoodRisc website is a good starting point. "As we know, food-risk issues can have a huge economic, cultural and social impact, particularly in a crisis situation," says Dr McConnon. "Effective communication is therefore key to effective risk management. It is envisaged that the FoodRisc project will add value to the risk-management strategies of many stakeholder groups working in this field."
Perhaps the most significant lesson learned by the FoodRisc project team is simply that food safety professionals can no longer afford to dismiss the use of social media as a communication tool.
Approximately 2 billion people around the world have access to the internet, and a large and increasing percentage of them are using social media. In fact, Europe has surpassed the US in the personal use of social media. Online communication has a vital role to play in ensuring food safety, a research priority of the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for research and innovation.
Furthermore, the project's results indicate that organisations also need to take responsibility when things go wrong. Social media applications could prove especially useful in this area, as they provide the opportunity for direct communication and interaction with the audience.