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Fear the Cookie Dough

featured / public health / communication / advertising research

Fight Bac | Food Safety As a mom of two kids I am the first to admit that I’ve not only consumed raw cookie dough myself, but also let my children lick the batter off the spoon (cue my guilt and shame as a public health researcher).It is likely that many consumers are aware of the risks for foodborne illness (from the raw eggs) in cookie dough – yet like me continue to eat it. Like many health behaviors, this begs the question "if we know the risks, why do we still do it?" This week’s announcement by the FDA may slow cookie dough consumption (temporarily) but it’s not likely to last.

Food safety is a public health concern that we don’t often think about or frankly talk much about – until there is an outbreak or recall. For most of us, we eat food and drink beverages multiple times a day with very little thought, and seldom get sick as a result of what we consume. Yet the public health burden of foodborne illness is formidable; according to the CDC, it’s responsible for approximately 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 American deaths per year. The magnitude of this mortality statistic is on par with the number of yearly deaths due to distracted driving (e.g. texting) – a highly publicized public health concern. So why is food safety and foodborne illness not on the hearts and minds of your average consumer? Why does texting and driving feel riskier than making a meal? Well it’s all about the messaging.

Public health agencies (USDA, CDC, FDA etc.) and partners have been working together to unpack this very issue and educate consumers about safe food behaviors – especially since more than 20% of foodborne illness in the U.S. is a result of food consumed in private homes. Fight Bac | Food Safety National campaigns such as
Be Food Safe, Food Safe Families and FightBac!, show consumers how to prevent illness by practicing four food safety behaviors: clean, separate, cook and chill. Young children, pregnant women, elderly adults and anyone who is immunocompromised are particularly at risk for foodborne illness. These populations and the vast majority of U.S. consumers are in need of food safety education. Yet as social scientists we know that education and awareness is not enough to drive behavior change. Thinking about food safety behaviors in the context of the Health Belief model allows us to consider a variety of contributing factors including: one’s perception of foodborne illness susceptibility and severity, perceived benefits or barriers to engaging in safe food handling, confidence in one’s ability to do these behaviors and the existence of cues or readiness strategies to promote the behavior. From this model we can target specific attitudes and beliefs through messaging, building on the success of existing campaigns to reduce the incidence of foodborne illness.

So, beyond educating consumers, what else can messaging do?

First and foremost, food safety messages need to elevate the perceived threat of foodborne illness. According to the International Food Information Council Foundation’s 2012 Food and Health Survey, "nearly six out of ten Americans (57%) agree that the chances they will actually get foodborne illness or food poisoning (like Salmonella or E.coli) from something they eat or drink are extremely low." Clearly consumers are not as concerned about food safety as they should be (as compared to texting and driving for example) so messages should help consumers see how susceptible they and their families are to foodborne illness and that not engaging in prevention behaviors can result in severe consequences. Second, food safety messages need to dispel myths, inaccurate beliefs and/or reduce perceived barriers. Numerous studies have shown that consumers overestimate their ability to prevent cross-contamination of foods when preparing meals with raw ingredients. This attitude of overconfidence can be addressed by focusing on messages about the risks they cannot see (i.e.: bacteria) and demonstrating how these risks are relevant to their daily life. Furthermore, consumer misnomers about food poisoning only occurring in food service have to be addressed as well. Lastly, food safety messages need to laser target the beliefs and practices of sub-populations who use more "risky" ingredients in their cooking. Certain groups are more likely to cook with unpasteurized dairy products, for example, or use familial and cultural food handling practices (e.g.: counter thawing meats) and need to be provided with alternative behaviors. Food and meal customs are often deeply engrained in consumers psyche and sufficient cognitive and affective engagement is required for food safety messages to support overcoming these behavioral barriers.

Last year, when the World Health Organization published the first global estimate of public health burden foodborne illness they stressed the importance of food safety as a shared responsibility among government, the food industry and individuals. As public health educators we need to better understand consumer attitudes, beliefs and behaviors (especially for those most at risk) and frame messages in a way that resonates and elevates the level of perceived risk. As consumers, we need to educate ourselves and consistently practice safe food behaviors to avoid illness for ourselves and loved ones. So as we all gear up for the holiday weekend festivities don’t forget to clean, separate, cook and chill that party food, keep those fingers out of the cookie dough and have a happy and healthy fourth of July!


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