Improving effectiveness of consumer information and prevention of microbiological risks in food

Each year, around one third of the foodborne disease outbreaks reported in France occur in the family environment. Some of these cases are due to domestic practices (inadequate preservation, insufficient cooking or contaminant transfer). Improvements within certain sectors, as well as specific information aimed at consumers, could help reduce the risk associated with certain foodborne diseases. The Directorate General for Food (DGAL) made a formal request to the Agency with the aim of making a substantiated choice from among all the possible communication strategies to be implemented, in relation to certain food health risks and also potential constraints for the sectors in question. The Agency is publishing today the findings of its work. Improving the risk control measures within certain production sectors should be examined as a priority. The Agency is also proposing recommendations on the effectiveness of communication strategies likely to modify consumer behaviour and thus to reduce the microbiological risks associated with food.

According to European regulations on food hygiene, the strategy for managing health risks is based primarily on prevention of contamination as far upstream as possible in the production sector, and therefore essentially before the product reaches the consumer.

Each year, around one third of the foodborne disease outbreaks reported in France occurs in the family environment (between 26 and 39% depending on the years). Some of these cases are caused by poor preservation of food at home, insufficient cooking or cross-contamination.

This observation led the Directorate General for Food to make a formal request to ANSES with the aim of making a substantiated choice from among all the communication strategies to be implemented, in relation to certain food health risks and also potential constraints for the sectors in question.

The Agency's work

Its preliminary work (Opinion of 9 May 2014) helped to identify hazard/food combinations for which a change in consumer practices could lead to a reduction in the risks. A review of the communication strategies put in place was also conducted.

The Opinion and Report published today focus on how to increase the effectiveness of communication strategies for preventing food-related microbiological risks. Thus, the work mainly concerns: 

  • the identification of factors that induce consumers to change their behaviour;
  • the effectiveness of the different communication strategies (communication campaign, labelling, educational programmes, actions by healthcare professionals, etc.);
  • the choice of the target for the communication (general or targeted population);
  • the assessment of the health impact of a communication campaign on the measures that can be applied by consumers, compared with measures implemented within the agri-food sectors.

The communication strategies studied concern general hygiene measures and four hazard/food combinations:

  • shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli (STEC) / minced beef;
  • listeria monocytogenes/ a food consumed unprocessed in which L. monocytogenes can grow;
  • campylobacter / poultry meat;
  • clostridium botulinum/ honey (risk of infant botulism).

Thanks to the participation of experts from the human and social sciences, the work led to prioritise the proposed communication strategies  in the area of prevention of microbiological risks in food, taking into account the targeted populations, the complexity of the message and the cost-effectiveness of the campaign.

The Agency’s recommendations

The Agency's work revealed that communication to consumers had only a slight effect on risk reduction, compared to additional measures likely to be implemented by the agro-industrial operators, for a potential additional production cost. A risk reduction strategy should therefore as a priority explore the feasibility of improving control measures within the production sectors.

However, communication aimed at consumers remains necessary and should be continued. To ensure that it is as effective as possible, the Agency makes the following recommendations:

  • because a combination of different means of disseminating information increases the effectiveness of the communication, priority should be given to "multi-channel" (media, medical staff, consumer associations, etc.), "multi-place" (places of purchase, family, work, school) distribution, addressing both the individual and their environment, and with actions over the long term;
  • the establishment of a communication activity should be preceded by a careful consideration of the choice between a communication intended for a targeted population (pregnant women, parents of young children, the elderly, immunocompromised individuals, etc.) and/or the general population, taking into account its effectiveness, cost and impact on social inequalities in health;
  • communication strategies should rely on the best possible knowledge of actual behaviour related to risk practices;
  • in order to reduce the majority of microbiological risks, communication should focus on general hygiene measures (cooking, preservation, prevention of cross-contamination) as well as avoiding consumption of foods posing a risk to certain population groups. These recommendations on general hygiene and behaviour related to food safety could be included in campaigns on nutrition (for example in the framework of the National Health & Nutrition Plan), in order to propose coherent general dietary recommendations, and/or in existing educational programmes on food, such as National Taste Week or the educational pathway on health, in order to improve knowledge of the subject among young children.

It also appears necessary to continue to strengthen and consolidate knowledge on microbiological risks in food among medical, paramedical and social workers, to enable them to provide better information to the populations concerned.