considered mad cow disease a serious threat.

More recently in 2003, Steve Raabe of The Denver Post and Matthew Walter of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, reported on how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a presumptive diagnosis of BSE in an adult Holstein cow located in Washington state. Officials traced the animal's origin to Canada using an ear tag identification number. The immediate fallout was dramatic: Fearful consumers in the United States and Canada stopped buying beef, and exports from both countries were stalled for months. Sales in related industries similarly declined. Tyson Foods Inc., the largest beef producer in the United States, estimated that BSE cut its beef segment operating income by $61 million in 2003.

The USDA's response in this case was fast and dramatic, and it averted a much larger and more devastating crisis. First, the USDA was proactive in communications by announcing the cow's presumptive diagnosis before labs in England had verified the BSE. Second, despite a relatively low risk level to other livestock and human health, the agency publicly announced proposals to cut the risk even further, including more testing, additional monitoring and tighter controls for imported cattle. Sources said these proactive communications in 2003 helped avoid a UK-style outbreak and more damaging impacts. According to the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, BSE affected 180,625 British cattle and a virtual worldwide ban on British beef cost farmers billions of dollars.

 

Mental Noise

When individuals are severely stressed and/or otherwise highly concerned about a risk, such as food-safety defense, their ability to process information is typically reduced by up to 80 percent. These concerns -- or mental noise - serve to distract individuals (consumers) and diminish their ability to effectively hear, understand and remember messages. Constructing and delivering information to a stressed population during a food-safety defense crisis is therefore radically different from normal communication. Noted social scientist Dr. Elaine Vaughan, points to a number of possible negative consequences when risk-communication techniques and approaches aren't appropriately applied, including:

o The audience is confused by the message.

o Strong reassurances are issued prematurely.

o Fears are raised without a simultaneous increase in self-efficacy or confidence in risk-reduction steps.

o Contradictory messages are sent.

o Public perceptions are ignored and concerns are not addressed.

o The public refuses to follow recommendations.

o The public's confidence declines in the assessment of risk by experts.

o There's unnecessary social and economic disruption.

 

Anticipation, Preparation and Practice

Planning is essential for successful risk communication about food-safety defense. Numerous communications experts -- such as Sheldon Krimsky, Alonzo Plough, Caron Chess and R.C. Brownson -- advocate for risk-communication planning that employs specific techniques and approaches rather than generic program goals; be based on a working knowledge of the audiences; provide a framework for addressing audience concerns; and most of all, be flexible and allow for the unexpected. In addition, emergency management professionals must have a clear understanding of the purpose of the communication, the audience and the fundamental message before engaging in risk communication.

Emergency management professionals first must know the purpose of the risk communication. The initial impetus behind communicating food-safety defense risks is usually reactive (risk communication activities in response to a public health and safety concern can be either reactive or proactive, depending on the situation). If a risk communication is to take place, is the goal to inform or persuade audiences? Each situation is unique, but with few exceptions, risk communication is used to assist individuals, communities and society at large to prevent, reduce or mitigate their risk.

For risk communication to be effective, knowledge about the intended audience is also essential. The same risk may have to be communicated to multiple audiences, including scientists, the general

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.