Bill Spur – The Chronicle Herald

A study released Thursday on the efficiency of food recalls shows confusion among Canadians, says the lead author.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, says the survey done in conjunction with the study asked about four distinct food recalls, one of them fictional.

“And only four per cent of Canadians surveyed were able to distinguish the real recalls versus the fictional one. We do get a lot of recalls; just last year we got three recalls, on average, each week. That’s a lot of noise for anyone to manage,” he said, adding that including a trick question like that in a survey isn’t that uncommon.

“As long as Ethics approves it. Our Research Ethics Board approved it, it’s misleading psychology, I guess, but we just wanted to know if people were authentic about how they replied to our survey. We actually believe that there’s some optimistic bias out there, a lot of people hear about food recalls but they won’t act on it, they won’t look in their fridge or their freezer because they do trust the food they just purchased.”

Charlebois thinks trust in our food supply is less of an issue than how problems are communicated to the Canadian public. He said people don’t understand what’s happening.

“Media is saving lives in this country, but I’m just not convinced it’s a sustainable approach to risk communication. There’s lot of stories to cover and food recall alerts are lost in all of the noise that we hear every single day. Food recalls are competing against the latest Trump tweet, as an example. It’s unfair to put media in that situation. That’s why we’re suggesting that perhaps the (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) should  establish a very functional relationship with consumers in general, and that’s non-existent right now,” the professor said.

“Most Canadians actually underestimate the number of recalls we get every year; 90 per cent of Canadians actually feel that we have 50 recalls or less. We’ve never had less than 70 recalls in one year in this country. The record is 462.”

Charlebois is on the national scientific board of the CFIA, and he describes it as a very open-minded agency. But, he said, it’s often an organization that deals with crises every day.

“And risk communication may not be a priority,” he said. “What we’re arguing is that it should be.”

Aline Dimitri, executive director/deputy chief food safety officer for the CFIA, said the media is just part of the communication strategy for the agency.

“It’s not that they’re doing it because we’re not doing it. The reality is we need them to amplify the message,” she said. “We have many ways already of communicating directly with the consumer and we use all the venues that exist to us.

“We have the social media, so in addition to having it posted on our website, we have a Twitter account that we push information to, with over 6,000 subscribers. We have a Facebook page that we push information to, we have email lists that people can receive, and the (newest) of those direct communications is actually through the Healthy Canadians website  where Canadians can go and see all recalls. The Healthy Canadians website also now has an app that people can get recall information in real time and set alerts and so on.”

© The Chronicle Herald