Timely Food Safety Risk Communication will Decide the Credibility of Food Safety Authorities

Credibility of any organisation depends upon how open it is in its function and approach. It is therefore important to understand that food safety risk if not communicated in time to consumers can lead to serious risk for public health and the credibility of organisations managing food safety risk will be eroded.

The focus of any food regulation to ensure food safety should be on the use of risk assessment based on sound scientific basis. It should further recognize that the process of risk analysis is actually comprised of three interrelated processes, namely risk assessment, risk management and risk communication.

The Twenty-first Session of the CAC, held in Rome later in 1995, endorsed this concept in principle and called on FAO and WHO to jointly have additional consultations to address risk management and risk communication.

Risk communication was defined by the March 1995 Consultation on the Application of Risk Analysis to Food Safety Issues as “an interactive process of exchange of information and opinion on risk among risk assessors, risk managers, and other interested parties”. The practical application of risk communication in relation to food safety involves all aspects of communications among risk assessors, risk managers and the public.

This includes the following components:

  • Mechanisms of delivery;
  • Message content;
  • Timeliness of the communication;
  • The availability and use of supporting materials and information; and
  • The purpose, credibility and meaningfulness of the communication.

With increased public concern regarding food safety, greater demands are placed on risk communicators to involve the public and other interested parties in an interactive dialogue and to explain the magnitude and severity of risks associated with foodborne hazards in clear and comprehensible terms that convey credibility and trustworthiness.

This requires communicators i.e. food safety authorities, to recognize and overcome gaps in knowledge as well as obstacles inherent in the uncertainties of scientific risk assessment.

The present rule making process, which is, going on right now at Food Safety Authority of India must address all the three component parts of risk analysis and address the process of risk communication.

The objectives of the food safety authority consultative process to develop guidelines for officials and other stakeholders should be:
1.  To identify the elements of effective risk communication and recommend guiding principles;
2.  To examine the barriers to effective risk communication and to recommend means by which they can be overcome;
3.  To identify strategies for effective risk communication within the risk analysis framework;
4.  To provide practical recommendations to industry and other related agencies and consumers in order to improve their communication on matters related to the risk assessment and management of food safety hazards.

In addressing these issues, the guidelines from the FSSAI should consider the entire scope of the application of risk communication to food standards and safety matters related to health and trade. This includes the interaction between risk assessors and risk managers, and among risk assessors, risk managers, risk communicators and the consumers or public.

Elements and guiding principles of risk communication

Effective communication of information and opinion on risks associated with real or perceived hazards in food is an essential and integral component of the risk analysis process. Risk communication may originate from official sources at international, national or local levels. It may also be from other sources such as industry, trade, consumers and other interested parties. The recent list of rejections published by many countries can be a good starting point, which highlights the potential risks associated with various products. For example - snack foods and namkeens can be potential source of salmonella; imported fresh fruits can be a serious risk for bio-security of India similar to bird flu and swine flu and can impact food security by destroying crops in India from invasive species and disease of plants.

In the context the interested parties may include government agencies, industry representatives, farmer groups, the media, scientists, professional societies, consumer organizations and other public interest groups and concerned individuals. In such cases, risk communication may be carried out in association with public health and food safety education programmes.

In 1997, the CAC adopted the definition of risk communication as: “an interactive exchange of information and
opinions concerning risk among risk assessors, risk managers, consumers and other interested parties”.

Risk communication has also been described as all those integrated processes and procedures:
a)  that involve and inform ALL interested parties within the risk analysis process;
b)  that assist the development of transparent and credible decision making processes; and
c)  that can convey confidence in risk management decisions.

What should be the Communication Strategy?

A wide variety of communication strategies should be used in the management of food-related risks, ranging from the development of national and international standards, to management of acute outbreaks of foodborne disease, to long-term programmes aimed at changing food production, food handling and dietary practices.

It is important to note that the Codex definition on risk communication is too narrow, since it does not take into account the need to communicate factors other than the probability of the adverse health effect and the severity and magnitude of that effect.

Understanding and communicating food safety risk has clearly been shown to be influenced by a host of additional factors, such as:

  • Whether the risk is voluntary or involuntary;
  • Whether the distribution of risk and benefit is equitable;
  • The transparency of the process;
  • The extent to which risk managers are trusted;
  • The degree of personal control;
  • The individual dread of the adverse effect; and
  • The extent to which the risk is unknown.

It means the risk communication definition finalised by the FAO and WHO consultation of Food Safety Risk Communication is more suitable for FSSAI. It says, “Risk communication is the exchange of information and opinions concerning risk and risk-related factors among risk assessors, risk managers, consumers and other interested parties.”

What should be the goals of risk communication?

The fundamental goal of risk communication is to provide meaningful, relevant and accurate information, in clear and understandable terms targeted to a specific audience. It may not resolve all differences between parties, but may lead to a better understanding of those differences. It may also lead to more widely understood and accepted risk management decisions.

Effective risk communication should maintain trust and confidence. It should facilitate a higher degree of consensus and support by all interested parties for the risk management option(s) being proposed.

The goals of risk communication should be to:
1.  Promote awareness and understanding of the specific issues under consideration during the risk analysis process, by all stakeholders;
2.  Promote consistency and transparency in arriving at and implementing risk management decisions;
3.  Provide a sound basis for understanding the risk management decisions proposed or implemented;
4.  Improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the risk analysis process;
5.  Contribute to the development and delivery of effective information and education programmes, when they are selected as risk management options;
6.  Foster public trust and confidence in the safety of the food supply;
7.  Strengthen the working relationships and mutual respect among all participants;
5.  Promote the appropriate involvement of all interested parties in the risk communication process; and,
6.  Exchange information on the knowledge, attitudes, values, practices and perceptions of interested parties concerning risks associated with food and related topics.

Risk communication as an integral part of risk analysis

Risk communication is generally accepted as one of the three components that constitute the process of food safety risk analysis. Risk assessment is the process that is used to quantitatively or qualitatively estimate and characterize risk. Risk management is the weighing and selecting of options and implementing controls to assure an appropriate level of protection.

FSSAI should therefore recognize that risk communication, being an integral part of risk analysis, is a necessary and critical tool to appropriately define issues and to develop, understand and arrive at the best risk management decisions.

For many years, those responsible for assessing and managing risks associated with hazards in the food supply have communicated information and opinion about those hazards in the interests of protecting and promoting public health. These communications were expressed mainly in qualitative terms regarding the hazards, as there were often no clear quantitative data concerning the resultant risks. More recently, the formal development and application of risk-based approaches to food safety and the availability of quantitative information related to risks in human populations, has provided the opportunity for improved implementation of risk-based management strategies. Risk communication has played an important role in the application of such risk-based approaches, by providing a mean to interactively consider all relevant information and data. Of course, risk communication is also applicable in many situations where the qualitative consideration of hazards is undertaken. In such cases, the principles and strategies of risk communication would still apply.

In the present Codex context, the CAC and its subsidiary bodies are responsible for establishing a risk assessment policy. This provides the guidance for those necessary value judgements and policy choices that may need to be applied at specific decision points in the risk assessment process. It is vital that risk managers and assessors maintain open communications with each other and with other interested parties in defining and applying policy in this area. This is one of the serious gray areas in risk assessment in the food safety management in the country.
Very often the information used for decision making is very subjective and based on preconceived notions.

What FSSAI should do to enhance public confidence?

Before a formal risk assessment is initiated, appropriate information must be obtained from interested parties to prepare a “risk profile”. Place. all these information should be placed on website so that additional information could  be provided, if required by other stake holders. This will describe the food safety problem and its context, and identify those elements of the hazard or risk, which are relevant to various risk management decisions. This often involves a range of preliminary risk evaluation activities, which rely on effective risk communication (e.g., ranking for international and national standard setting or putting a food safety problem in an appropriate national or international context).

Risk characterization is the primary means by which food safety risk assessment findings are communicated to risk managers and other interested parties. Numerical estimates in the characterization, therefore, should be supported by qualitative information about the nature of the risk and about the weight of evidence that defines and supports it. There are inherent difficulties in communicating the quantitative aspects of a risk assessment. They include ensuring that the scientific uncertainties inherent in the risk characterization are clearly explained and that scientific terminology and technical jargon do not render the presentation of risk less understandable to the target audience. Communications among risk assessors, risk managers and other interested parties should use language and concepts that are suitable for the intended audience.

Risk communication facilitates the identification and weighting of policy and decision alternatives by risk managers in the risk analysis process. Interactive communication among all interested parties tends to assure transparency, facilitate consistency and improve the risk management process. To the extent that it is practical and reasonable, interested parties should be involved in identifying management options, developing the criteria for selecting those options and providing input to the implementation and evaluation strategy. When a final risk management decision has been reached, it is important that the basis for the decision be clearly communicated to all interested parties.

During the selection of risk management options, the risk manager i.e. FSSAI may often need to consider factors in addition to science in the evaluation of a risk. This is particularly important at the national and state government level. Interactive communications are essential to identify social, economic, religious, ethical, and other concerns, so that these can be openly considered and addressed.

Preparation of risk messages for dissemination is an important part of the risk communication process. The message to contain spread of HIV, Swine flu and bird flu was a good attempt by department of health. It is also a deliberate and specialized undertaking and should be treated as such in place of using general knowledge of agencies have no understanding of food safety and processes.

The credibility of newly formed Food Safety and Standards Authority of India will depend upon the communication to consumers and other stakeholders. Good risk communication and proper risk messages will not always decrease conflict and mistrust, but inadequate risk communication and poorly developed messages will almost certainly increase both.

 

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