For German consumers worried about E. coli, doctor knows best
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For German consumers worried about E. coli, doctor knows best

With the cause of the recent E. coli outbreak confirmed, it seems appropriate to look back at how news related to the scare was communicated.

Holmes Report

Ketchum Pleon senior partner and president David Gallagher is the ThinkTank EMEA commentator until the summer, responding to provocative news issues on a weekly basis.

With the cause of the recent E. coli outbreak confirmed, it seems appropriate to look back at how news related to the scare was communicated, where Germans felt they received the most reliable information and any lessons learned for the future.

A recent survey commissioned by our offices in Germany from tns emnid found that 82% of German consumers see their personal physicians as the most credible source of information on issues related to food-borne illness. Similarly, healthcare organizations such as the Robert Koch Institute enjoy 78% of the public’s confidence.

Contrast this with other sources of information: only half of consumers take media coverage of E.coli seriously, and nearly 30% said they actually don’t believe what they’re being told in print, online or on the air.

It seems hard to blame the media for the initial finger-pointing at Spanish cucumbers or the slow pace at which credible information seemed to emerge, especially as fatalities were mounting. Communicating clearly and accurately during an issue amongst the swirl of incoming information can be challenging. Even so, the press seems to have forfeited a good deal of credibility with many Germans on this issue, and Herr Doctor clearly seems to know best. Perhaps the media should consider involving more doctors and healthcare organizations in their communications, it might be just the thing they need to get more readers to listen to the advice being given.

Despite what has certainly been a challenging few weeks for the food industry, the news is not all bad. In the survey, only half of consumers report making any changes at all related to the outbreaks, and these involve better hygiene and avoiding produce from affected areas more than outright bans of certain foods. And interestingly these are generally temporary: only 14% of respondents indicate permanent changes to their habits.

What next for producers and retailers? In the short run, working with health professionals to provide objective, clear information on how to recognize food-borne illness quickly and to prevent it in the first place seems key. Investigating and, where needed, significantly and transparently upgrading handling processes (especially in affected areas) would be a good idea. And in the longer term, it seems that an updated industry-wide protocol for surveillance and communications of outbreaks (working closely with the public health community) would be in order.

Any other advice for the industry? Or thoughts on how better to communicate during an outbreak? Interested to hear your ideas.

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