No more botulin in olives, please

Preserved olives (“Organic Olives Stuffed with Almonds”) made in Italy have apparently caused a tragic death in Finland, because of botulism. They are being recalled across Europe (in the UK, in Ireland).

At the time of writing, I firmly hope that there is no further exposure to the product, no further illness, and that a totally preventable death does at least help stave off pain from other lives and families.

The tragic event relates to some lines of reflection relevant to our current research and consulting work.

First, one will note that the recall (which concerns currently all batches of the product) is now clearly mentioned on the firm`s website. Starting on October 28, the news had some traction in Italy too. Informing the public of own recalls through their own websites is considered best practice, though only a minority of companies appear to do so on either side of the Atlantic; apparently, on that day the company sent a Press Release to Italy’s leading news agency, ANSA.

Italian authorities, who are certainly taking action in the field, have also been silent about the issue, including whether the same product is distributed locally (it turns out it is), till today, October 31 (the Ministry of Health seems to confirm that the olives were on sale in Italy too, and that the plant has been shut down). Normally Italian authorities go public when botulism is suspected, unlike when other foodborne disease is (Listeriosis, Salmonellosis, etc), or when there is no illness. Italian authorities generally believe that they are capable of controlling risks, and that information to consumers would not reduce the risk to consumers but would result in undue alarmism, with unwarranted losses to the relevant food sector. This is in line with the attitude in Germany and other EU countries, and contrasts sharply with the US/UK approach, though in principle the UK has the same regulatory system (a lay-man reading of the EU General Food Safety Law would support UK`s practice). However, botulism is an exception, and in this case there was lots of media pressure, and a tragic death to confirm the need to go public.

Generally, however, even beyond botulism, we expect more food recalls to be publicized in Italy and other previously shy EU countries, because of several reasons.

Consumers are becoming used to nonfood recalls (for example, those of IKEA are common place), even if they see very few food-related ones. Moreover, when a food recall has in fact been made public and there were no illnesses, the media impact has been nihil or benign. Therefore, the brand damage of issuing a press release in case of a recall can now be estimated with some confidence. The cost of not going public early, on the other hand, is also becoming clearer: consumers are coming to expect public recalls as part of a company`s social responsibility. In this case, the delay has further tarnished, or probably killed, the brand reputation – when the issue was clearly too large to remain silent.

There also seems to be more willingness of international companies to apply best practice across the EU, even against national norms. Carrefour went recently public with a recall.

Also, some online media blogs and magazines are increasing their attention to this topic, and put pressure on firms (and authorities).

Leaving communication aside, organic, or home-made style, preserved olives have caused recurring botulism problems in Italy and elsewhere. This is striking. We have understood botulism for almost two centuries, and there is is strong food technology to keep the toxins out of our food. Preserving food requires knowledge, process and controls: food safety is not a malicious invention of multinational funded, greedy, positivist tradition haters. Most organic or home-made style food businesses may accept the anti-science rhetoric, but refrain from practicing it. Nevertheless, a few, smaller ones may not realize the need for skilled staff; more do not realize that validation of processes is not auditors`latest oddity. How much this applies to the present case it is early to say, though we know for sure that botulin should not have been there, and that the technology to prevent it is available.

In this respect, the organic food industry should be bold, and use its means, without excuses, to rid us of the hazards, least this tarnishes the organic brand (through certification they have strong tools). There is certainly a place for auditors, and official control staff to just say no when preserving can`t be done properly.

In summary, we advise to review recall plans under the communication header and make sure not to make, or stop making, preserved foods (my steadfast advice to all agriturismi is not to do it) or, if you do, that you can make it properly (for every recipe).

And let`s hope nobody hears, or dies, of botulism and olives again.

Luca Bucchini, Managing Director

Update:  on Nov 1st, the FDA made the recall (which is of a voluntary nature) public.

Hylobates’ consultants get ready to work with EFSA’s application desk

Hylo’s consulting team is preparing to work closely with the newly created EFSA’s application desk on applications submitted on behalf of clients.   According to EFSA, the mission of the newly created application desk is to act as a front office and support desk for applicants.   The application desk should handle requests of applicants, Member States, stakeholders and other interested parties and register and conduct an initial administrative compliance check on application dossiers, among other duties.  The application desk is part of the new EFSA’s REPRO Directorate whose aim is to provide independent scientific advice related to risk assessment of substances, products and processes intended to be used in the food chain and, substantiation of claims made on foods.

“EFSA is a pillar of food safety and the rule-based food information system in the EU. Working closely with the Authority has always been a priority for Hylobates” according to Luca Bucchini, Hylobates’managing director “Being based in Italy, we are close to the Authority; we scrutinize, seek to understand all its actions. The setting up of the desk is a step in the right direction, in line with the most efficient food administrations in the EU. We believe it will help us aid applicants in a more effective way, rewarding rapidly good applications”.

Hylobates Consulting

Risk assessment, management and communication: highlights from the 20th Society for Risk Analysis Europe Meeting

The Annual  Meeting of the Society for Risk Analysis Europe took place this year, for its 20th edition, in Stuttgart (Germany) from 6th to 8th of June and I have had the chance to attend the conference, contributing with an oral presentation within one of the symposia organised. More specifically, I have given a presentation within the symposium “Food Risks and Benefits” which was focused on the results achieved so far by FoodRisc project (for more information visit www.foodrisc.org). FoodRisC is an FP7 funded project, currently running, focused on food risk and benefit communication and Hylobates Consulting is one of the partners of the projects consortium.

Many topics were covered during the oral sessions and symposia  running in parallel throughout the whole conference. The most interesting ones, bearing in mind the work we carry on at Hylobates, were risk assessment, risk management and risk communication in different fields, such as food, nanotechnologies, climate change, nuclear power as so on. In particular, risk communication was of interest for us considering our involvement in FoodRisC project as already mentioned.

In relation to the issue of perception of risk communication, Ellen Peters (Ohio State University, US) explained in her presentation, during the first plenary session of the conference, the concept of “numeracy” and its implications in risk perception. “Numeracy” refers to the ability of individuals in processing numeric information contained in a message. This skill influences decisions people take about various kinds of risks, such as environmental, health or financial ones, when exposed to information on related issues.

Moving on to risk assessment and risk management, two presentations were dedicated to this complex topics followed by a lively debate between the speakers. The first presentation was from Terje Aven (University of Stavanger, Norway) who focused on the misconceptions of risk which are present in the methods used in risk assessment and risk management. The speaker provided some examples as well as some ideas for improvement. Subsequently, Charles Vlek (University of Groningen, Netherlands) gave a talk on uncertainty in risk evaluation and on the rational balancing the precaution and venture principles, using different examples to explain the theory behind these principles, from the Trojan horse to E.coli crisis in Germany.

Finally, I would like to mention the presentation of Atsuo Kishimoto (National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Japan) who provided a thorough explanation of the risk governance in a multiple risk situation such as the one that occurred in Japan on last March, with the earthquake, the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear accident all at the same time. The speaker talked about the consequences of the unexpected height of the tsunami and complete loss of electricity in the nuclear power plant at Fukushima in relation to what were considered to be the deficits of the managing system emergency.

 

Antonella Guzzon – Research Team

 

Hylobates intervista 35 persone in Italia per il progetto Foodrisc

Patrick Wall, coordinatore di FoodRisC

Hylobates Consulting è uno dei quattordici partner del Progetto FoodRisC (Food Risk Communication –perceptions and communication of food risk/benefits across Europe – in italiano “Comunicazione del Rischiodegli Alimenti – percezioni e comunicazione dei rischi e benefici degli alimenti in Europa”), finanziatodalla Comunità Europea nell’ambito del 7° Programma Quadro.

Il progetto ha una durata triennale ed ha l’obiettivo di elaborare una mappa delle reti e delle fonti di informazione che contribuiscono all acomunicazione dei rischi e dei benefici degli alimenti in Europa. Il consorzio che gestisce il progetto ècostituito da istituti di ricerca, PMI, organizzazioni dei consumatori che nell’insieme rappresentano nove Stati Membri.
I progressi della ricerca sono stati discussi durante il secondo meeting del progetto che si è tenuto a Londradal 3 al 4 marzo 2011.
Hylobates ha portato a termine 35 interviste con i consumatori, esperti e stakeholder che sono state condotte in Italia.  Altrettante interviste sono state condotte da altri cinque partner del progetto (Belgio,Irlanda, Lettonia, Spagna, Paesi Bassi).

I risultati delle interviste di tutti i paesi coinvolti contribuiranno alla valutazione della comunicazione dei rischi e benefici degli alimenti tra i consumatori, esperti estakeholder che rappresentano diversi passaggi della filiera alimentare. In particolare, le interviste sarannoanalizzate per identificare le questioni che sono di maggiore interesse per i consumatori in relazione allacomunicazione dei rischi e benefici degli alimenti.
Più in generale, le aree di ricerca del progetto includono:

  • La caratterizzazione delle questioni relative al rischio e beneficio degli alimenti e le implicazioni perla comunicazione ad esse correlate
  • Il potenziale ruolo dei nuovi social medi nella comunicazione dei rischi e benefici degli alimenti
  • Il modo in cui i consumatori rispondono all’informazione che percepiscono come incerta,contraddittoria e che disorienta e sviluppare dei criteri rilevanti di segmentazione
  • L’applicabilità del concetto di ricerca dell’informazione nell’ideazione della comunicazione dei rischi e benefici degli alimenti
  • Mettere a punto delle modalità pratiche con cui tener conto di come i consumatori formano le loro opinioni e deliberano con l’obiettivo di fornire benefici sostanziali agli stakeholders nello sviluppo della comunicazione

I risultati della ricerca saranno utilizzati per fornire ai decisori politici, alle autorità nel campo alimentare e ad altri stakeholders degli strumenti di lavoro con lo scopo di facilitare la comunicazione efficace e coerentenel campo alimentare e quindi favorire la comprensione dei consumatori attraverso messaggi chiari.

35 in-depth interviews conducted in Italy for the FoodRisC EC project

 

Photo of Patrick Wall, coordinator of FoodRisC

Patrick Wall, coordinator of FoodRisC

Hylobates Consulting is one of  fourteen partners of the EU 7th Framework project FoodRisC (Food Risk Communication – perceptions and communication of food risk/benefits across Europe), a three years project aimed at mapping out the  networks and information sources contributing to food risk and benefit communication across Europe. The project consortium is made up by research institutes, Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), consumers organisations which altogether represent nine EU Member States.

Progress of work has been discussed during the 2nd meeting of the project which took place in London on March 3rd-4th 2011.

Hylobates has completed 35 interviews with consumers, experts and stakeholders  conducted in Italy. Similar interviews were carried out by other five partners of the project (Belgium, Ireland,  Latvia, Spain, The Netherlands). The results of the interviews from all countries involved will contribute to the assessment of food risk and benefit communication among consumers, experts and stakeholders representing different step of the food chain. In particular, the interviews will be analysed to identify the issues which are of most interest for consumers in relation to communication of food risk and benefit.

More generally the fields of investigation of the project include:

  • the characterization of food risk and benefit issues and the related communication implications
  • the potential role of new social media in communicating food risk/benefit
  • the way in which consumers respond to information they perceive as uncertain, contested or confusing and to develop relevant segmentation criteria
  • the applicability of the concept of information seeking to the design of food risk/benefit communications
  • developing practical ways in which consumer sense-making and deliberation can be taken into account in order to provide substantive benefits to stakeholders in developing communications.

The results of the research will be used to provide policy makers, food authorities and other stakeholders with a toolkit aimed at facilitating the effective and coherent communication on food and thus promoting consumer understanding through clear messages.

Hylobates Science

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