contamination by food-borne diseases or a terrorist act doesn't have to occur within the United States to have a devastating affect on its food supply.

These factors may have been top-of-mind for then departing Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson when he publicly acknowledged the vulnerability of the U.S. food supply. In an Associated Press report, Thompson said, "For the life of me, I cannot understand why the terrorists have not attacked our food supply because it is so easy to do." Thompson was quoted similarly in 2001, two months after the World Trade Center attacks. At that time, and according to a story by Frederick Golden in Time, Thompson told Congress, "I am more fearful about this [organized attack on food and crops in North America] than anything else."

Whether the causes are intentional or unintentional, communicating about food-safety defense crises falls within the risk-communications parameters.

 

Risk-Communication Planning and Response

Numerous terms are used in the subject area of risk, which can be confusing. The President's Commission on Risk Assessment and Risk Management final report refers to risk assessment as the process of organizing and evaluating information about the nature, strength of evidence and likelihood of adverse health or ecological effects from one or a combination of threats. Risk management is the process of analyzing, selecting, implementing and evaluating actions to reduce risk. In this article, the term risk communication means the interactive exchange of information and opinion among individuals, groups and institutions about food-safety defense risk.

Risk communication is a science-based approach for communicating effectively in emotionally charged, high-stress or controversial situations. Also worth noting is the substantive growth in the risk-communications body of knowledge over the last 20 years. Still, risk communication continues to be a powerful, albeit neglected, tool for policymakers and emergency management professionals.

Although salmonella is primarily transmitted through meat products, there has been an influx of vegetable-related cases in the last year.

A thorough understanding of the principles in risk-communication research and practice can inform and guide communication decision-makers in managing message content, messenger characteristics and channel effectiveness. The three key concepts are: perceptions of risk; mental noise; and anticipation, preparation and practice.

 

Perceptions of Risk

In his research, leading risk-communication expert Peter Sandman has identified at least 20 risk-perception or fear factors that can affect how people in a high-concern state of mind view the magnitude of a food-safety defense risk, and therefore its acceptability. For example, risks are generally more worrisome, feared and less acceptable if they are perceived to be:

o under the control of others, especially if they aren't trusted;

o involuntary;

o unfair or inequitable;

o man-made as opposed to natural in origin;

o unfamiliar or exotic;

o dreaded;

o uncertain; and

o a threat to children.

Further, risk-perception theory counters the conventional notion that facts speak for themselves. People commonly accept high risks, yet at the same time, they fear or become outraged over less-likely risks. For example, once a risk becomes familiar or is no longer new, it's often less of a concern. In their perceptions research, noted risk-communication experts David Ropeik and Paul Slovic, show that at the time bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), commonly known as mad cow disease, first appeared in Germany, a public opinion survey found that more than four in five Germans (85 percent) thought it was a serious threat to public health. The same poll was conducted concurrently in the United Kingdom, where BSE had been around for years and had killed numerous animals and more than 100 people. The UK poll found that only four in 10 British citizens (40 percent)

Tim Tinker & Vincent Covello  |  Contributing Writers
Tim L. Tinker, a senior associate of Booz Allen Hamilton and a crisis and risk communications expert, is co-director of Booz Allen Hamilton's Center of Excellence for Risk and Crisis Communications. Vincent T. Covello is director of the Center for Risk Communication. The authors can be reached at tinker.timothy@bah.com and vincentcovello@ix.netcom.com.