CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Retailers shouldn't underestimate the power of public perception -- and misconception -- regarding the safety of meat products, said a pair of food-safety experts last week at the Annual Meat Conference here.
Lester M. Crawford, former administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, urged all links in the supply chain to take immediate steps to improve communications with American consumers on the realities and myths surrounding the safety of meat.
The statement was backed up by William Hueston, D.V.M., Ph.D., professor and chair, department of Veterinary Medicine, University of Maryland, and associate dean, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. While predicting the chances of a U.S. epidemic of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) are "remote," the likelihood of identifying a case of variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease (CJD) -- a disease linked to BSE -- is "considerably higher" and would generate the kind of headline news story prompting questions from consumers.
"A retailer won't have time to create a preparedness plan after variant CJD is discovered," Hueston said. "It's too late."
Both men stated that BSE and foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) are unrelated diseases with completely different consequences. No cases of BSE have been reported in the United States, but the disease has battered Europe, where it's had grave economic consequences. FMD last made a stateside appearance in the early part of the 20th century. The disease can have serious economic consequences, but is not contagious to humans.
Even with no current threats to human health from these maladies, the public's reaction to general news reports can hurt the economy in any number of ways, said Crawford, who now is director and research professor at the Georgetown Center for Food and Nutrition Policy in Washington.
As an example, he pointed to a recent survey of Americans that showed a small minority of respondents think BSE, or mad cow disease, and foot-and-mouth disease, are one and the same.
Concerns are starting to affect purchasing of beef and other animal products, according to the survey by Porter Novelli, the Washington-based public research firm. Of those polled, 14% said they already have changed their food-buying or eating habits in response to reports they had seen regarding the livestock diseases.
For Hueston, the key to a good plan is making information available to the retailer, so they in turn can educate and answer consumers' questions, replacing perception with reality.
"In a sense, I think the consumer drives the educational process and level of knowledge," he said, suggesting that retailers simply ask their customers to define their concerns.
"Sometimes, as a scientist, my concern is completely different from the consumers' or, more commonly, the consumers have a concern that might be one that never occurred to me," Hueston explained. "I learn from them."
Hueston cited as an example the increasing number of queries about whether BSE and FMD are the same thing.
"I would never have thought of that as an issue," he said. "And when I explain foot-and-mouth disease is not a public health issue and not a safety risk, it answers a lot of their questions."
With BSE, one of the most important pieces of information a retailer can transmit is that muscle meats have never been identified as sources for BSE, Hueston said. A retailer's understanding that infectivity is associated primarily with brain and spinal cord -- and also the retina, trigeminal ganglia, bone marrow, distal ileum and dorsal root ganglia (DRG) -- would make the retailer better prepared to communicate the facts in the event of a diagnosed case of variant CJD in this country.
Meat products that would give rise to concerns for BSE contamination are rib roasts and T-bone steaks through DRG; bone-in meat through bone marrow; and ground meats with brain and spinal cord components. Other products include mechanically recovered meat, hard meat and sausage casing.
For supermarket operators overwhelmed at the thought of assembling preparedness measures, Hueston suggested contacting professional organizations and universities in their states.
Once organized, how those food-safety messages are conveyed to shoppers plays a major role in public perception, Crawford said. Industry leaders must "out-science" the activist groups that come forth with their own food-safety warnings, he said.
Supermarket retailers can make a difference in the communication game, since they are the last, most visible link between the meat industry and the consumer, he said.
Hueston emphasized that retailers connect with their employees when a new issue that emerges may require a series of actions such as pulling an item off the shelf, posting signage, creating focus groups or even talking with employees about how important their job is as how it relates to the new issue.
"You involve everyone," Hueston advised.
BSE's new presence has imparted a different way of dealing with crises.
"We've learned that we need to turn around and analyze new conditions rapidly, and then respond with scientifically sound management strategies to control it," Hueston said. That new behavioral mode also applies to retailers.
"I want retailers to think, 'What if this happens? How will it affect my business?"' he said. "Even if retailers think about it for only 10 minutes, they're going to be better prepared, if it does happen."
An effective system for communicating information about food safety to the public doesn't exist, Crawford said. Typically, those who convey information about the diseases are government officials, not scientists, and that's part of the problem.
"Scientists don't normally speak out on these kinds of things," he said. "We don't have an organized effort" to report information to the public.