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Evaluation of electronic information sources to identify food safety issues for risk management and communication: the creation and assessment of the Food Safety network (FSnet)

01.jan.00, Powell et al, Dairy, Food and Environmental Sanitation 19(9): 618-621.

Reference: Powell, D.A., Alves, D.M., Lynch, J., Lammerding, A., and Griffiths, M.W. 1999. Evaluation of electronic information sources to identify food safety issues for risk management and communication: the creation and assessment of the Food Safety network (FSnet). Dairy, Food and Environmental Sanitation 19(9): 618-621.

Abstract

A prototype electronic bulletin board for food safety risk managers, the Food Safety Network (FSnet), was established in Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and evaluated over a three-month period to determine if electronic information services could enhance the capability of the 10 study participants to respond to food-safety issues in a timely manner, augmenting existing risk assessment, management and communication activities. Information in the form of news stories or summaries from around the world was uploaded to the FSnet bulletin board on a daily basis. A total of 447 individual stories were uploaded to FSnet, of which 60 per cent were deemed of interest by study participants; of those stories deemed interesting, 91 per cent were first discovered through FSnet. Qualitatively, through personal interviews using a standardized set of questions, nine of the 10 study participants reported that FSnet added to their level of competence at work, if not directly then indirectly. The results suggest that FSnet was meeting its intended goal as an electronic communications tool to assist in risk analysis activities, to rapidly identify issues for risk management and communication activities, to enhance awareness of public concerns in scientific and regulatory circles, and to exchange timely and current information for direction of research, diagnostic or investigative activities.


Introduction

Traditionally, information is conveyed upward in an organization much more rapidly than horizontal communications to those who may have a need to know, primarily because of the lack of appropriate mechanisms for such exchange (Fisher, Chitose and Gipson, 1994). Yet increasingly, scientists and others within an organization are asked to speak on food safety issues in the public domain. As bureaucracies flatten the information chain-of-command, front-line staff are making more decisions and have a greater need for timely information on the public discussion of an evolving risk scenario.
While public opinion surveys offer insight into public perceptions of microbial food safety (CCGD, 1997; FMI, 1997) such research tools are static and fixed at a particular point in time. Further, media coverage often leads public opinion (Powell and Harris, 1997; Kone and Mullet, 1994), establishing political and scientific priorities and framing the public discussion of a risk issue (Powell, 1997; Nelkin, 1987).

Other researchers have recently capitalized on developments in electronic communication to enhance public health surveillance systems and to report notifiable diseases and clusters of disease outbreaks (Morse, 1996; Vacalis et al., 1995; Fisher, et al., 1994; and Thacker and Stroup, 1994). Yet such systems, while crucial to effective public health surveillance, are limited in providing insight into the broad public discussion of a risk issue.

To provide practical tools to risk managers, a multi-agency project to assess the effectiveness of on-line information services was established in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. The result was the Food Safety Network (FSnet), a prototype electronic bulletin board for risk managers. The research objective was to determine if electronic information services can enhance the capability of Guelph-based government agencies and others to respond to food-safety issues in a timely manner, augmenting existing risk assessment, management and communication activities.


Method

Within the Guelph area are several agencies representing all levels of government and with responsibility for human health, animal health, or food testing. Food safety issues encompass part, or all, of the activities of these groups. The opportunity existed to establish and evaluate a computer-based telecommunications network which would serve to rapidly alert scientists and managers about events that warranted issue management or risk communication activities, and to exchange timely and current information for direction of research, diagnostic or investigative activities.

A three-month trial involving 10 risk managers from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), the Health of Animals Laboratory of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (now part of Health Canada), the Ontario Region office of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Health Canada, the Wellington County Health Unit and the University of Guelph began on Jan. 30, 1995.

Initially, a prototype electronic bulletin board system was established where participants in FSnet could dial into a dedicated computer housing the FSnet information. The bulletin board was designed with various levels of security, and access assigned selectively to allow only specific users to interact on a confidential basis when necessary. The system was designed with ease-of-use as the primary criterion, and a standardized set of user guidelines was distributed to the pilot group of managers. A dial-in computer bulletin board was chosen because several of the participating agencies did not have Internet access when the system was designed in the Fall of 1994.

Information in the form of news stories or summaries was uploaded to the FSnet bulletin board on a daily basis. The information forming the individual stories was selected from several sources. American and international news wire services, as well as science and technology-related press releases, were searched on a daily basis through the U.S.-based electronic information provider, CompuServe, using food-safety related keywords. Articles related to food safety in the broadest sense were retrieved and summarized for inclusion in the daily FSnet postings. Relevant Internet-based mailing lists and newsgroups were searched on a daily basis, as were the hard copy editions of the New York Times, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. The daily, North American edition of the N.Y. Times was searched because, as noted by Nelkin (1987), the Times is critically important for setting agendas in the media world. The Toronto Globe and Mail functions as the agenda-setting outlet in Canadian media, while the K-W Record is representative of a mid-sized, local newspaper with both urban and rural news coverage. The Science and Health section of the Associated Press news wire was also searched manually on a daily basis. Relevant articles were summarized for inclusion in FSnet stories. Manual searches of these media outlets were conducted to compliment electronic searches because electronic indexes and the use of keywords have been found to be inconsistent, unreliable and can lead to erroneous results (Neuzil, 1994; Zollars, 1994).

Comprehensive Canadian print media coverage, from both general circulation and specialty trade publications, was obtained through a three-month contract with Southam Infomart, a Toronto-based electronic information provider, which also allowed direct distribution to up to 10 users without copyright infringement. The 10 participants in the study were individually briefed about the system, appropriate hardware and software alterations were recommended, and the participants were asked to complete daily questionnaires documenting how the FSnet news summaries were used. The trial period ran from Jan. 30, 1995 to April 28, 1995, encompassing 65 working days. A single individual (the content provider) determined what stories were appropriate for inclusion in the daily posting.


Results

A total of 447 individual stories were uploaded to FSnet, averaging just under seven food safety-related stories per working day, collected from the sources listed above. One story was counted as an individual item of interest, not the several times it may have been reprinted in various media outlets.

Of the 447 stories uploaded to FSnet, the content provider deemed that 78 per cent were of interest, in terms of food safety and agricultural biotechnology (Table 1). Of the stories derived from Infomart, 40 per cent were deemed of interest. In total, the 10 participants downloaded 824 stories (out of a potential of 447 X 10 = 4,470 stories) reflecting the erratic participation rates by the partners in the study. Nevertheless, of the stories that were of interest—meaning that the story may have had relevance to an individual’s employment criteria -- 91 per cent of the stories of interest were first heard about through FSnet.

The relatively low and erratic participation rate (in terms of completed questionnaires) was a problem that could have potentially skewed the results. However, of the 10 participants, one completed the questionnaires on an (almost) daily basis. Her results were similar to those of the FSnet content provider in terms of stories of interest (269 out of 367 stories downloaded by this user, or 73 per cent), and quite close to the overall rate for origin of stories of interest at 94.1 per cent. Other participants downloaded a mean of 50 stories over the study period.

Qualitatively, through personal interviews using a standardized set of questions, nine of the 10 study participants reported that FSnet added to their level of competence at work, if not directly then indirectly. Most were impressed by the timeliness and breadth of the information provided. Five of the original 10 participants began to serve as news distribution filters within their organizations, using electronic technologies to widely disseminate the daily news. One of the 10 study participants felt that the majority of news articles were of limited applicability and that press reports were often vague or incorrect.


Discussion

FSnet was conceived as an electronic communications tool to assist in risk analysis activities, to rapidly identify issues for risk management and communication activities, to enhance awareness of public concerns in scientific and regulatory circles, and to exchange timely and current information for direction of research, diagnostic or investigative activities. FSnet was intended to provide current, generalized, public risk perception information about rapidly changing issues, selected from journalistic and scientific sources around the world and condensed into short items or stories that make up the daily FSnet posting.

After the initial study period was completed, the participants met and unanimously decided that FSnet was sufficiently valuable to continue. However, several changes based on the results of the three-month trial were implemented. The contract with the electronic information provider was not renewed and the bulletin board system was discontinued. By May, 1995, those participating agencies that previously did not have Internet access were now on-line, and FSnet was distributed solely on the Internet.

The change may appear superficially subtle -- dialing in versus checking Internet-based electronic mail -- but is dramatic in practice. Dialing into a computer-based bulletin board requires an individual user to actively seek out information. Checking one’s electronic mail has become a routine activity with the growth in access to the Internet, and it is much easier—according to the study participants—to receive regular updates as part of regular electronic mail than to alter their routine and make an outside call to a bulletin board.

Additionally, the FSnet content provider began to exercise more editorial control, choosing only those stories directly related to food safety, a move that was welcomed by FSnet recipients. This resulted in a larger percentage of the stories had relevance, and recipients of FSnet seemed to be more responsive to FSnet issues, based on responses to the content provider

Interviews with FSnet recipients revealed several, employment-specific uses of this electronic communications tool. Scientists have followed leads in FSnet to obtain specific bacterial or viral cultures for laboratory analysis. Government and university personnel involved in agricultural extension or outreach work have used the information to motivate clients with current information, while others generally felt more prepared when engaged in discussions with consumers or other professionals. One said, “Personally, I feel much more knowledgeable (and confident) about what is going on.” Fsnet was routinely used by an animal health surveillance network to receive current information and gauge the effectiveness of risk communication messages.

Academics receiving FSnet are using the up-to-date coverage as case studies in undergraduate classes. They report that students are much more motivated when studying material that is as current as possible. Industry is using the information to become more aware of public concerns with their products or processes. One large company has used Lotus Notes, a software product to support computer-aided collaborative work, to establish an internal repository of FSnet summaries that can be browsed by the firm’s entire research and development staff. This company thought the postings were relevant enough that their scientific staff should be reading the information.

Perhaps the most beneficial impact of FSnet was the most difficult to quantify. Once FSnet became Internet-based, it became very easy—at the push of a button—to redistribute material to others within an organization. Those researchers within government and academia who have relatively little contact with the public seemed the most appreciative of the daily news updates, often because it placed their laboratory-based work in a larger social context, and provided greater insight into public discussion of food risks.

A recurring theme in public controversies about risk is the notion that the public needs to be better educated about science (Powell and Leiss, 1997). Even public opinion polls about scientific literacy send a tacit message that public understanding of science will provide a solution to technological controversies. Yet risk communication theory argues that trust is more important than science in the public arena. Science is important, but so are regulatory actions and notions of accountability. In other words, scientists need to better understand the public. FSnet is one such tool, providing scientists and regulators with current, generalized, public risk perception information regarding rapidly changing food safety risks.
FSnet is currently distributed to approximately 2,500 individuals in over 40 countries; and many of these individuals act as information amplifiers, redistributing information to others. FSnet postings are freely distributed, with on-going funding support from government and industry sources. Typically, two mailings summarizing issues of relevance are issued each working day, and one or two on the weekend. In a crisis situation, where information is rapidly changing, such as a disease outbreak or a crisis of public confidence related to new scientific findings (as with bovine spongiform encephalopathy in the U.K.) as many as four or five mailings may be issued in a single day, constantly updating information.


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References

CCGD, 1997. Trends in Canada: Survey on Consumer Shopping. Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors. Toronto.

Fisher, A., Chitose, A. and Gipson, P.S. 1994. One agency’s use of risk assessment and risk communication. Risk Analysis 14: 207-212.

Fisher, I.S.T., Rowe B., Bartlett C., Gill O. N. 1994. “Salm-Net” laboratory-based surveillance of human salmonella infections in Europe. PHLS Microbiology Digest 11: 181-2.

FMI, 1997. Trends in the United States: consumer attitudes and the supermarket. Food Marketing Institute. Washington, D.C.

Kone, D. and Mullet, E. 1994. Societal risk perception and media coverage. Risk Analysis 14: 21-24.

Morse, S. 1996. Tracking global threats via the Internet: international monitoring of emerging infectious diseases provides early warnings. American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting. Baltimore, Md. Feb. 12.

Nelkin, D. 1987. Selling Science: How the Press Covers Science and Technology. W.H. Freeman and Company. New York. 224 pp.

Neuzil, M. 1994, Gambling with databases: a comparison of electronic searches and printed indices. Newspaper Res. J. 15: 44-54.

Powell, D.A. 1997. The use of media analysis in risk communication research in Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk by Douglas A. Powell and William Leiss, McGill-Queen’s University Press. Montreal. pp. 227-236.

Powell, D.A. and Harris, L.J. 1997. Professional and media warnings about the hazards of Escherichia coli O157:H7 prior to and after the 1993 Jack-in-the-Box outbreak. J. Food Protect. (submitted).

Powell, D.A. and Leiss, W. 1997. Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Montreal. 308 pp.

Thacker S.B. and Stroup D.F. 1994. Future directions for comprehensive public health surveillance and health information systems in the United States. Am J Epidemiol. 140: 383-97.

Vacalis, T.D., Bartlett, C.L.R. and Shapiro, C.G. 1995. Electronic communication and the future of international public health surveillance, EID 1(1).

Zollars, C. 1994. The perils of periodical indexes: some problems in constructing samples for content analysis and culture indicators research. Comm. Research 16: 698-716.

Total number of stories uploaded 447
of interest to FSnet content provider 349 78%

Number of stories from Infomart 162
of interest to FSnet content provider 64 40%

Total number of stories downloaded 824
(out of possible 447 X 10 = 4,470)
of interest to FSnet study participants 490 60%

Table 1. Total number of stories uploaded to FSnet and those judged to be of particular relevance to the FSnet content provider, and number of stories downloaded by study participants and percentage judged to be relevant by study participants.

• attempt to incorporate public judgments without compromising the central role of science in decision-making
• integrate, rather than maintaining conflicting, segregated viewpoints
• impossible to separate risk assessment from risk management

Centre for Environmental Risk Management, University of East Anglia, Norwich, U.K.

• Trial period Jan. 30, 1995 to April 28, 1995
• 65 working days
• Total number of calls: 669
• Number of messages: 113
• Downloads: 712
• Uploads: 168
• Total 447
• Infomart 162
• dp 285
– blues 90 31.6%
– CompuServe 179 62.8%
– Internet 13 4.6%
– hard 3 1.1%

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