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Food safety messages need to change behaviours

Scientists at Ohio State University have discovered simply telling consumers what to do doesn’t mean they’ll actually do it


Wooster, Ohio – When it comes to food safety, telling consumers what they need to do is very different from them actually doing it.

And beating consumers over the head with the scientific data doesn’t work.

That’s according to one of the scientists, Jeff LeJeune, who is working on how to let consumers know how to protect themselves and make food safety messages effective.

The scientists, LeJeune and Lydia Medeiros, are food safety experts at Ohio State University.

Power of persuasion

They are studying techniques from the fields of psychology and risk communications to find ways to communicate food safety messages that will actually persuade people to change the way they make decisions about food.

“The recurring theme is, ‘How do you motivate people to change their behaviors?’” says LeJeune. “What we’re finding is that it all depends on the audience.”

There is usually a trigger for people that will motivate them to get more information on a topic, adds Medeiros.

“For pregnant women, for example, it’s protecting the health of the baby,” she says.

Tailor the message

Messages about food safety need to be tailored to audiences depending on what’s motivating them to behave in a certain way, adds Medeiros.

Both LeJeune and Medeiros have done extensive research previously on food safety communication and education. And for this current research, the scientists are combining techniques they have used in past studies, conducting surveys as well as interviews and focus groups of consumers to gather subjective information.

The work they’ve done so far is a pilot project for a larger national study they plan to begin this fall.

Milk as an example

LeJeune and Medeiros for now are focusing on people’s milk-drinking habits, interviewing individuals to determine their motivations for choosing to drink either pasteurized or unpasteurized milk.

They also are looking at whether there are differences in these motivations between urban and rural populations.

Drinking unpasteurized or “raw” milk is considered by public health authorities to be hazardous because disease-causing bacteria can contaminate milk even from healthy dairy cows or from environmental contamination during collection and storage of milk.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, milk was a common cause of disease before the advent of pasteurization.

Many states, including Ohio, ban the sale of raw milk, but those who want to drink it often buy into a “herd-share”

Ohio State researchers Jeff LeJeune and Lydia Medeiros are trying to find ways to make food safety messages more effective. Photo by Ken Chamberlain, Ohio State University, CommTech

program and pick up their share of milk directly from the farm.

Mental models

The researchers are using the theoretical concept of “mental models” from the field of psychology when interviewing participants or leading focus groups.

The principle has been used in the past to approach other public health issues, as well as wildlife management and environmental issues.

“Everyone has a mental model for every decision they make,” explains Medeiros. “Just take crossing the street. Subconsciously, you assess whether it’s safe to cross, or if you should wait, or walk to the corner.”

LeJeune appreciates the approach.

“It gives us data, some science-based decision-making to use in developing messages,” he says. “It’s not just ‘Let’s throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.’”

Strongly held beliefs

Medeiros says she is intrigued by the part of the model that incorporates the concept of “strongly held beliefs.”

“When a person has very strongly held beliefs, they are the least receptive to a message that’s contrary to what they already believe,” she said. “They do not want to change their minds. That’s especially true with an issue like raw milk.”

So far in their study, the researchers are finding that people who drink raw milk and who also live in urban areas tend to have a strong distrust of institutional authorities that are charged with the safety of the food supply.

Interestingly, the same isn’t true of people who drink raw milk who live in rural areas.

“That says we should design different messages for these two populations,” says Medeiros. “If you’re addressing people who drink raw milk and live in the city, you’re not going to get your message across if you start with ‘I’m from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, and I’m here to tell you something.’”

However, that type of message may work better in rural areas and for people who drink pasteurized milk, both of whom tend to have a much higher level of trust in such authorities, she says.

Medeiros also has noticed anecdotally from the study’s focus groups that people who drink raw milk tend to believe they are very knowledgeable about milk-related food safety and nutrition information.

“But when we actually surveyed participants on their level of knowledge of food safety, almost everyone – whether they drink raw or pasteurized milk, or even if they have an R.D. (for registered dietitian) after their name – it is at about a C-minus level when it comes to food safety knowledge,” she says. “There’s not any real difference.”

That poses a problem for food safety communicators, says LeJeune.

If consumers think they’re already well-informed and knowledgeable, but really aren’t, they’re not going to seek out more information.

And whether an audience is receptive to new information is key, says Medeiros.

“If you can begin to influence a person’s attitudes through education and information, you can begin to influence their evaluation of their basic beliefs, and that’s the strongest indicator for behaviour change,” she says.