EFSA issues food crisis communication guidance

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

EFSA advice on crisis communication for member states
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published recommendations to ensure ‘consistency and coherence’ when communicating with external parties during a crisis.

Guidelines cover the need for quick communication, the need for transparency and collaboration and warned against underestimating an incident.

The agency said they can serve as a reference​ for national food safety authorities of EU Member States. 

“Communicating while facts are still uncertain is one of the hardest challenges in the early stages of an emerging incident. In this situation it is important to say what you know, acknowledge what you do not know, and indicate what you are doing to acquire that information​,” it added.

“Prioritise the effect of an incident on people. Your key messages should address issues related to public health and deal with public concerns and perceptions.

“If you don’t communicate, somebody else will. Their information might not be accurate and could even make the situation worse.”

Effective response during crisis moments

An EFSA spokesman said every national authority probably has a similar approach towards crisis preparedness.

“It is important to consider EFSA's coordinating role among the EU Member States when looking at these guidelines. Sharing guidelines (making sure everybody is operationally aligned) ensures effectiveness of collaboration in moments of crisis,” ​he told FoodQualityNews.

“Crises are different but the principles of crisis communications are the same, no matter what the crisis is. Every crisis brings lessons to be learnt, from the public and the private sector.”

EFSA’s Advisory Forum Communications Working Group (AFCWG) created the guidelines with EU Member States based on best practices from previous food-related crises such as melamine in food and feed (2007), E. coli in sprouted seeds (2011) and residues of phenylbutazone in horse meat (2013).

Best-practice advice covers:

-          Taking control of communicating about a situation.

-          Communicating quickly to protect human health.

-          Identifying target audiences and the tools to reach them.

-          Communicating clearly and transparently.

-          Collaborating with partners because food-related crises do not stop at international borders

The guidance recommends horizon scanning so when an incident is suspected, or occurring, begin online monitoring as soon as possible. Track traditional and social media channels so you know what is being reported, commented on and shared, and be ready to respond.

It said don’t be afraid to say if facts are unknown, don’t speculate or blame another member state or organisation for difficulties and not to offer monetary assessments during an incident.  

The spokesman said it is one of EFSA's primary tasks to communicate about risks and, to do so, training sessions and simulations are regularly organised.

Drafting of the 'crisis communication guidelines' document was a recommendation from one of the meetings.

“Training sessions, simulations and sharing principles of crisis communication with the EU Member States is a way to address language and cultural differences. And to get used to working under those circumstances,” ​he said.

“Social media is definitely a tool public authorities use to monitor and to engage with citizens and stakeholders. It's become part of the core communication tools of public bodies. The use of the various channels, however, can vary from one public authority to another.”

Holding statement and Q&A

EFSA recommends a ‘holding statement’ until more information is known which includes what happened, how and what is being done about it.

It is important that the initial post is followed up with regular updates, according to the guidance.

A Q&A (Questions & Answers) document (AKA ‘lines to take’) is an internal document and should never be released externally.

It is also possible collaboration will be needed with other bodies, such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO) or others, according to the guidance.  

After an incident the guidance said it was important to capture lessons learned from a communications perspective such as what worked well, what went wrong and future improvements.

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