Nutrition and health communicators have, in the past, struggled with messaging around dietary guidance, weight management, and obesity. In recent months, a plethora of food safety crises has focused the attention of communicators on how best to deal with messages under conditions of crisis and high risk. Numerous cases of Salmonella, cyclosporiasis, Listeria, a deadly form of Escherichia coli, and other pathogenic outbreaks have raised consumers’ concern about the safety of the food they consume as well as about the US food system itself. In this article, the authors revisit well-established rules for communicating about scientific uncertainty and real or perceived health risks around food. They analyze some of the more serious communication challenges in the most recent romaine lettuce and other food safety scares, and they propose reasons for the ensuing public confusion. Finally, they offer suggestions on meeting the evolving challenges in the new digital information era, with its perpetual news deadlines.
Nick Alexander, BA, is former senior media counselor for the International Food Information Council Foundation located in Washington, DC. He holds a bachelor of arts degree in economics from Harvard University and is a former network correspondent with ABC News in New York. For more than the past decade, Mr Alexander has tracked and written about science communications issues and the evolving challenge to public acceptance of credible science.
Sylvia Rowe, MA, is currently president of SR Strategy, which addresses the science to communications to policy continuum on a broad range of global health, nutrition, food safety, and risk issues. She is also an adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.