July 8: Professor Sylvain Charlebois publishes risk communication model for food safety regulators
Notifying the public of potential dangers in food through recalls is a key communication tactic employed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to ensure public safety and wellness. But media headlines are only a small part of the overall communication strategy they require to connect with all stakeholders involved in these crises, including scientists, risk assessors, risk managers and consumers.
In a recent article published in one of the world’s top food science journals, Trends in Food Science & Technology, professor Sylvain Charlebois and Amit Summan suggest a risk communication model and strategy for food regulators. Titled "A risk communication model for food regulatory agencies in modern society," it is the first time a risk communication strategy, motivated by a risk communication model, has been created for Canada’s food safety regulators.
Charlebois and Summan, who worked on the government-mandated project for four years, are currently implementing the model with the CFIA. The model provides guidance for incidence-based communication, which pertains to food safety events such as recalls, as well as on-going risk communication to encourage prevention and education.
“Risk communication is a significant issue in food safety,” said Charlebois. “This new framework allows for the regulator to create partnerships and use networks to its advantage when conveying messages related to food risks. Partnerships are critical to the collection of evidence and quick and effective connection with intended audiences.”
For science-based organizations, building these networks and recognizing the importance of timely responses can be challenging. Charlebois says the framework has the potential to make the regulator more permeable and will streamline the flow of information among organizations and individuals.
“The fundamental underlying principle of this framework is centralization and increased control of the food risk-related information that is conveyed to the general public,” he said. “Centralization can often be seen as the remedy for conflict and confusion amongst stakeholders because there is this increased control over where the information is coming from.”
This centralization strategy includes, likely for the first time, the notion of risk intelligence, which functions like a home for all of the information the regulator needs to identify and prevent risk situations. Combining this risk intelligence with communication will allow the regulator to engage more with stakeholders and take on a more transparent and responsive approach to their communication strategy.
Now that the framework has been published, Charlebois and Summan are working with the CFIA on its implementation, a process Charlebois says will continue for a few years. In the long term, he says the model has the potential to further influence the recall system to include other sectors including pharmaceuticals, cars and other durable goods. He also sees the possibility of an independent risk intelligence agency, which would report directly to parliament.