Last month I was the lead-off speaker in a breakout session at the 2010 Food System Summit, which centered on consumers’ concern and fear surrounding the modern food industry. My talk was focused on food safety and addressing the need for effective risk communication. An overarching need is to provide timely, accurate, relevant, and understandable information so consumers can make informed decisions. How fast, accurately, and honestly a company addresses a crisis is the difference between trust in a brand—or a brand’s fall from grace.

In the past 10 years, numerous food items have been recalled for safety reasons, including ground beef, eggs, peanut butter, chili, tomatoes, and spinach. Between 2007 and 2008, the number of food-safety recalls rose from 338 to 565—that’s an increase of 67%. And it seems that whenever a recall or other food safety crisis occurs, communication concerning the event can occur in a variety of ways. Sometimes, information regarding the food crisis is not relayed to consumers in a timely fashion. On other occasions, recall information may be issued timely enough, but dissemination of the information is limited and people ignore the message: Statistics indicate that current recall messages reach only 50% to 60% of the general public. Additionally, vital information regarding a food recall or warning may be appropriately circulated, but the language used in the message may be confusing. Press releases for recalls are often too complex and written at a grade level higher than that of nearly half of the U.S. population.

These scenarios represent various attempts at risk communication, of which the end result is usually the same: too many consumers left unaware that a food safety issue is at hand and what they need to do about it. True risk communication takes into account the emotional response to an event, enables consumers to make informed decisions, and encourages constructive responses to crises.

Risk communication is an integrated approach based on ensuring that the right messages reach the right audiences at the right time. It requires the readiness and willingness of policy makers and food manufacturers to respond early with credible information. Honesty, candor, and openness are prerequisites for forging a solid rapport with the press as well as a trustworthy stance with the public. A company that handled the communication surrounding a product recall in an exemplary fashion, earning the public’s trust, was Odwalla.

On October 30, 1996, after learning that its unpasteurized apple juice was linked to an outbreak of E. coli 0157:H7, Odwalla voluntarily issued a recall of its products containing apple juice. Within a few days, the company had expanded the recall to include vegetable juices and dispatched trucks to retrieve the juice from retailers. The recall was complete by November 2, 1996. In addition to responding swiftly, Odwalla launched two websites, created two toll-free hotlines, issued several press releases, and participated in press conferences during which the company expressed concern for consumers’ well-being. Odwalla even sent representatives to visit families whose children had been affected by the contaminated juice.

Instead of that recall becoming an insurmountable blemish on Odwalla’s reputation, the company eventually became an industry leader in safe juice production—creating a food safety advisory council, flash pasteurizing their juices, and advising competitors to cease selling unpasteurized juices. To improve the effectiveness of recalls, risk communication needs to be timely, relevant, well-constructed, and broadly disseminated. Although Odwalla didn’t have a crisis management plan in place, its executives followed the company’s vision statement and core values of honesty, integrity, and sustainability and effectively addressed the issues. Odwalla essentially followed the Best Practices for Risk Communication that were developed by a team at the National Center for Food Protection and Defense a few years ago. (See below for a list of these 11 best practices.)

As some companies have so expertly demonstrated, the three overarching rules in successful risk communication involve planning ahead, communicating responsibly, and minimizing harm. This information is critical to the food industry, and IFT continues to make inroads in this area. In September, the National Center for Food Protection and Defense awarded IFT an 18-month grant to compare and contrast at least seven product tracing technology providers. To continue this outreach, as IFT President, I travel around the country and the world to discuss risk communication and food safety with Sections, our international colleagues, and others. I believe that if we practice the overarching rules, and continue to point companies in the right direction, then we are working to fulfill IFT’s long-range vision of ensuring a safe and abundant food supply contributing to healthier people everywhere.


An Overview of Risk Communication Best Practices

Odwalla essentially followed the Best Practices for Risk Communication that were developed by a team at the National Center for Food Protection and Defense a few years ago. These Best Practices are:

  • Plan for a prompt response
  • Establish a crisis communication network
  • Accept uncertainty
  • Establish partnerships with the public
  • Acknowledge public concern
  • Be open and honest
  • Be accessible to the media
  • Communicate compassion
  • Provide suggestions for self-protection
  • Continuously evaluate and update crisis plans
  • Acknowledge and account for cultural differences


Robert B. Gravani,
IFT President, 2010–2011
Professor of Food Science, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
[email protected]

In This Article

  1. Food Safety and Defense