Food safety group takes 'pop' message to masses
17.apr.07, Andy Johnson, CTV.ca News
17.apr.07, Andy Johnson, CTV.ca News
***Food safety group takes 'pop' message to masses***
Douglas Powell, a Canadian microbiologist based in Kansas, is on a mission to make food safety a pop-culture phenomenon.
It sounds like an unlikely objective, but with Powell's infectious excitement and his clever branding strategy, he may be the one person who can actually pull it off.
"Our audience is the MTV culture. We're trying to MTVize food safety," Powell, 44, tells CTV.ca during a recent phone interview
from Kansas where he heads the International Food Safety Network at Kansas State University.
Powell first created the IFSN 10 years ago as a graduate student at the University of Guelph in Ontario. He has now transplanted the laboratory to KSU where he leads a team focused on changing the way people in North America think about food safety.
With between 11 and 13 million people sickened in Canada last year due to food-borne illnesses and 76 million in the U.S., and a slough of major food recalls in the past six months, the need to get serious about food safety has never been more urgent.
"We try to target front line people," Powell says.
"Whether it's on the farm, whether it's processing, whether it's in food service or even consumers, we want to get inside people's
brains. It's fine to say wash your hands, but we want to provide the tools and provide the compelling information so that people really will wash their hands."
The solution, he says, boils down to a simple message: "Don't eat poop" and you won't get sick.
Simple right? It's actually a little more complicated than it sounds, Powell admits, but he and his team are waging a media-savvy campaign to break it down in a language people can understand, and ultimately, minimize contact between produce and manure.
"I was doing an interview with a USA Today reporter and we were talking about spinach, this was in the fall. And I said people don't seem to realize the reason they are getting sick," Powell says.
"They say the spinach is contaminated, or it has E. coli. But when I tell them it has cow poop on it and they're eating cow poop and
that's why they're getting sick, light bulbs seem to go off."
Thus the "Don't Eat Poop" campaign was born, and with it a snappy website and multi-faceted campaign to help people avoid what seems so obviously unpleasant.
The message, in short, is that farms need to focus on eliminating contact between produce and manure, tighter restrictions must be placed on water used to wash fruits and vegetables at the farm, and employee sanitation efforts must be improved -- meaning people all along the processing chain need to wash their hands.
And at the consumer end, people need to wash their produce, keep it chilled and learn to use thermometres to ensure food is cooked at the correct temperature.
But if precautions aren't taken at the farm end, and contamination gets into the produce -- often resulting in outbreaks and major
recalls like the spinach and other leafy green recalls that occurred last fall -- there's little that can be done by consumers.
Powell's strategies for getting the word out range from the traditional to the cutting edge -- all with the goal of reaching
people who work with, or prepare and eat, food -- so pretty much everyone, Powell says.
Pop culture campaigning
"One example would by what we call info sheets. Once a week we take something topical -- the one we put out (last week) was about eggs and Easter. And the idea with these is they're highly visual and colourful and we want these hung in the back kitchens, so you're hitting the food service employee. We try to target the front-line
But Powell and his colleagues have gone way beyond "info sheets," and are now using a host of new media to get their message out to a younger generation.
Blogs, Youtube music videos (one is a cheesy parody of Guns and Roses' "Sweet Child of Mine" titled "Baby, Please Wash Your Hands), podcasts, a Facebook page and t-shirts emblazoned with the "Don't Eat Poop" slogan -- available in four languages -- are some of the ways the IFSN is attempting to make the message heard.
"We do this because we feel passionately about it, but really, we're competing against a culture that is more concerned whether Britney and Lindsay and Paris are wearing underwear or not," Powell said.
"But if you look at those kids, a huge percentage of them are going to work in food services at some point in their lives and maybe
they'll even cook for themselves."
Powell says people seem to care about the safety of the food supply when an outbreak occurs, but the trick is to get them to care when there are no major known problems with the food supply.
Science is the foundation for everything the IFSN does, and there too, Powell's team is venturing into unchartered territory to gather new scientific data about how people actually prepare food at home -- and how they can do it more safely.
The team is setting up a test kitchen, where subjects will be asked to prepare meals following the same procedures and practices they use at home.
The two-year effort funded by the American Meat Institute will study people's cooking habits using uncooked, frozen, breaded poultry products.
But the information gathered will be relevant to all types of food, said Randy Phebus, a food microbiologist who is Powell's partner on the project.
"Part of the message we say to people when they're dealing with meat or produce is to say cook it properly, cook it to whatever
temperature it's supposed to be cooked at, but the only way to measure that is with a thermometre, and the vast majority of people do not routinely use thermometers," Powell explained.
"The problem with a lot of food safety stuff is it's based on self-reported behaviours. You ask them questions: Do you wash your hands? Yes I wash my hands. Ah but do you really? So you have to observe."
Few studies of the sort have ever been carried out, and Powell said the data is vital to determining how to minimize the number of
outbreaks of food borne illnesses and major recalls due to contamination.
Combined with the music videos, blogs and t-shirts, as well as the info sheets and the real science the IFSN digs into every day, the test-kitchen is one more weapon in the battle to improve food safety and, quite simply, to keep people from getting sick.