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The four listserves are free Internet-based mailing lists that provide current, generalized, public risk perception information about rapidly changing food safety and agricultural risks, gathered from journalistic and scientific sources around the world and condensed into short items or stories that make up the daily postings. Further detail on the process and rationale behind the listserves can be found in:
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: 618-621.
Powell, D.A. and Harris, L.J. 1997. Fast food on the information highway. Part 1. Becoming electronic: take me to your e-mail. Dairy,Food and Environmental Sanitation 17: 38-40.
Powell, D.A., Li, K. Bowman, R. And Chapman, B. 2002. The Food Safety Network(FSnet) as a risk analysis tool. Food Safety 2002, Porto, Portugal
These communication tools are designed for the following purposes:
- to assist in risk analysis activities,
- to identify issues for risk management and communication activities quickly,
- to promote awareness of public concerns in scientific and regulatory circles,
- to exchange timely and current information for direction of research, diagnostic or investigative activities.
The daily distribution via email goes to thousands of individuals from academia, industry, government, the farm community, journalists and the public at large. Typically, one or two mailings summarizing issues of relevance are issued each working day, and one or two on the weekend. During a crisis situation, information is updated even more quickly with up to five mailings on a single day. Sources are identified for all selections.
The FSN listserv (FSNet) has been continuously issued since May, 1995, with funding from the Agriculture & Agrifood Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture & Food (OMAF). AgNet, with funding from the OMAF Plants Program at the University of Guelph, was established in May, 1996. AnimalNet was created in September, 1997; Functional FoodNet followed in October, 2001.
The content of each of the four listserves is summarized below.
- FSNet: Material related to food safety including foodborne microorganisms, food-related outbreaks and recalls, BSE and regulatory issues.
- AgNet: Material related to plant agriculture including biotechnology, organic food production, pests and pesticides, climatic issues and phytopathology.
- AnimalNet: Material related to animal agriculture including animal behaviour and welfare, animal disease, antibiotic use and resistance, regulatory and trade issues.
- Functional FoodNet: Material related to nutraceuticals and functional foods, nutrition, allergens and antioxidants.
Material related to food safety -- including microbial hazards, nutritional issues and new animal diseases -- is included in FSnet. Material related to plant agriculture -- food biotechnology, chemical hazards, productivity and sustainability -- is included in Agnet. Material related to animal agriculture -- including new diseases, sustainability and animal welfare -- are included in AnimalNet. After a three-month experimental trial, the Food Safety network (FSnet) went on-line in May 1995. Agnet, with funding from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs' Plants Program at the University of Guelph, was established in May, 1996. AnimalNet was established in September, 1997.
Typically, one or 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 BSE in the U.K.) as many as four or five mailings may be issued in a single day, constantly updating information. With the wide availability of Internet access, the number of individuals receiving FSnet, Agnet, and AnimalNet is at the discretion of the funders; there is no practical limit to widely disseminate FSnet, Agnet, and AnimalNet.
This media analysis functions a tool to understand the formation of public opinion -- to look at what people are saying and what they are being told. Previous research has demonstrated that consumers receive much of their science information from media (Powell and Griffiths, 1994; Consumers' Association of Canada, 1990; Nelkin, 1987). This reliance on the media helps to define the public's sense of reality (Nelkin, 1987) and their perceptions of risks or benefits. Media not only reflect public perceptions of an issue (journalists, at least in theory, cannot make up newsworthy stories and rely instead on sources and interviews) but shape public perceptions by telling society what to think about.
Print media act as a filter of information regarding food quality, safety and environmental issues, and are an important factor in the public perception of both food quality and food and waterborne risks to human health and safety. When an issue is presented in print media, consumers begin forming or modulating their perception of an issue. According to the Four Hit Theory of Belief Formation (Covello, 1992), based on psychological research, consumers will transform an opinion into a virtually unshakable belief after an average of four credible hits-in which a hit can be a media report or a conversation with a friend. A single hit can be negated, but only within 48 hours. Once a belief is formed, individuals will rationalize away information that conflicts with that belief. Speed in identifying and responding to claims or "hits" that appear in the media is therefore a crucial factor in the formation of public perceptions.
Traditionally, information is conveyed upward in an organization much more rapidly than horizontal communications to other groups that have a need to know, primarily because of the lack of appropriate mechanisms for such exchange. The result may be that different government agencies or industries present conflicting information to the public about a specific risk. The importance of conflicting risk messages in undermining public trust is a fundamental tenet of risk communication, and has been borne out by several studies. For example, Powell et al. (1993) analyzed print media accounts of E. coli O157:H7 and cryptosporidium outbreaks and found that scientific or technical uncertainty, regardless of how minor, was magnified and often a focal point of media coverage. Because uncertainty in scientific assessments is often translated into public apprehension, carefully constructed risk messages, created and tested in an open and honest manner, are crucial to effective risk communication. Such message development requires up-to-the-minute information as new risks are identified in the public arena. Furthermore, 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.
Others, notably Morse (1996), Vacalis et al. (1995), Fisher, et al. (1994) and Thacker and Stroup (1994) have recently capitalized on developments in electronic communication to enhance public health surveillance systems, to report notifiable diseases and clusters. Yet such systems, while crucial to effective public health surveillance, are limited in providing insight into the broad public discussion of a risk issue. And increasingly, risk managers are asked to be accountable to a public audience, with varying risk perceptions and expectations.
Research is underway to evaluate the usefulness of FSnet, Agnet, and AnimalNet as risk analysis tools, augmenting existing risk assessment, management and communication activities, as well as technology transfer mechanisms. Underlying much of this research activity is the relationship between science and society. In risk controversies, it is common for scientists to state that the public needs to be better educated about science. 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 and science need to better understand the public. FSnet, Agnet, and AnimalNet are such tools, providing scientists and regulators with current, generalized, public risk perception information regarding rapidly changing risk scenarios.
Consumers' Association of Canada. 1990. Food Safety in Canada. Ottawa. 22 pp.
Covello, V.T, 1992. Risk communication, trust and credibility. Health and Environmental Digest 6: 1-4.
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.
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. 1996. Evaluation of electronic information sources to identify public issues for risk management and communication: the creation and assessment of the Food Safety network (FSnet) in Applying Risk Communication Theory to the Canadian Agri-Food Sector. A Thesis Presented to The Faculty of Graduate Studies of The University of Guelph..
Powell, D.A. and Griffiths, M.W. 1994. Public perceptions of agricultural biotechnology in Canada. Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting, Atlanta, June 25-29.
Powell, D.A., Ball, N.R. and Griffiths, M.W. 1993. Constructing reality: a comparative analysis of print media interpretations of messages regarding technological risk. SIGDOC '93, 11th Annual International Meeting of the Association for Computing machinery's Special Interest Group on Documentation, October 5-7, University of Waterloo.
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.