As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of our food issues group, we reflected on where we were with food safety communications in 2003 when we started this group, and where we think food safety information will be in 10 years. Much of our discussion about the changes rested on the speed with which the internet is expanding.

Ten years ago, gluten could have been the name of a new planet, vegans were trolls eating shrubs and the term “fast casual,” invented by Horatio Lonsdale-Hands of ZuZu Mexican Foods, was not yet reality.

The Previous Decade of Food Safety

Little changed between 2003 and 2013, with one major exception. In 2006, the Food Allergen Labeling & Consumer Protection Act went into effect requiring all ingredients derived from eight allergenic foods be described on a label. According to our Food Issues Group partner Jeff Nelken, food allergens are the number one reason for food recalls. Allergens were responsible for about 60 percent of recalls initiated in the second quarter of 2013, up from 34 percent in the first quarter, according to ExpertRECALL.

When we launched in 2003, salmonella, E. coli and other health outbrfeaks traced to the food industry stayed fairly quiet unless it was a significant outbreak picked up by news services. Ten years ago it took days not hours to reach the media or become public knowledge.

According to Food Safety News, two of the world’s deadliest food outbreaks occurred between 2003 and 2013:
• In 2008-2009, peanut butter and paste contaminated with salmonella (S. Typhimurium) caused at least 714 illnesses in 46 states and nine deaths.
• In 2011, “Rocky Ford” cantaloupes from Colorado became contaminated with Listeria, probably in the packing facility, sickening at least 146 in 28 states and killing 36.

While Twitter, Facebook and sites that encourage sharing like Buzzfeed were just beginning to attract attention in 2008 when the peanut butter event was happening (Google: 191,000 references), by 2011, the cantaloupe poisoning news spread more quickly but still had only 109,000 Google mentions.

But a recent chicken salmonella outbreak, small compared to other outbreaks and resulting in no deaths, did rack up almost two million mentions, so it’s obvious social media is generating more interest.

Social Media and Food Safety

Of course, the biggest change in communicating food safety issues is social media. A 2012 paper titled, “The Use of Social Media in Food Risk and Benefit Communication,” was published in a leading international journal Trends in Food Science and Technology. The authors were researchers from Belgium, Ireland and UK. They believe “that many opportunities are opening up for food risk communicators through the wide variety of social media applications and the digital environment.”

This means that social networks will play a fundamental role as disseminators of food risk and benefit information.

Information, on the other hand, can be incorrect. For this reason the paper encouraged those in the food industry to be proactive not reactive to control the message to prevent unwarranted panic and hysteria.

The Future of Food Safety

What issues can we as public relations professionals and social media experts expect to deal with in the next 10 years? Here are a few according to our food issues colleague Jeff Nelken who has been pretty prescient in the past:

• Excessive antibiotics in animal feed
• Bacteria becoming stronger and resistant to antibiotics
• Third party audits required by large food facilities
• Genetic modification and animal cloning
• Seafood species in short supply (Russia vacuums the bottom of the ocean) - fish grown in ponds bring more infections
• Allergies growing among children - genetic mixing will result in new allergies (not knowing which genes are being mixed)
• Possibility of super allergies (mixing animal and plant genes)
• Growth of counterfeit foods (recent Los Angeles cases include honey with only 15 percent pollen; extra virgin olive oil was misbranded with other oils mixed in; mislabeled seafood)
• Food companies lawsuits
• Difficulty growing food (Fifth UN Climate Report)

On the flip side, perhaps along with these issues, the future will bring us robots that can detect food poisons, 3D food made with our printers, vegans rule so meat and fish consumption drop precipitously, UVB lights in place of alcohol for sanitizing shopping cart handles and food packaging that changes color if bacteria reaches a certain level. Study up and prepare to see more food issues and crisis clients come on board.

Susan Tellem, APR, RN, BSN, is a partner with Tellem Grody Public Relations, Los Angeles, a public relations and social media marketing agency.