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Irish dioxin crisis (and social media)

The world of communication has changed significantly in the last decade as a result of the evolution of social media. This study clearly demonstrate a differential between social and traditional media reporting of a food crisis event.

Background

 Dioxins are highly toxic compounds that can possibly cause a series of health problems. On 28 November, 2008, contaminated animal feed fed to pig farms led to the detection of high levels of dioxins in routine testing of Irish pork. It was then confirmed that the presence of dioxins was as high as 200 times the European Union (EU) recommended limit for food safety concerns.

Actions

As a precautionary measure, and in the interest of protecting public health, the Irish government announced a total recall of all potentially contaminated pork products on December 6th. For the following week, the Irish pork industry’s business with foreign countries was frozen whilst a series of risk assessment and crisis management activities were carried out by key national and European level stakeholders. Risk assessments by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) and by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that there was minimal risk to health for anyone who had consumed contaminated pork products. The message for consumers was clear that they should not consume Irish pork products and that they should not be unduly concerned as short term peak exposure to dioxins and PCBs does not result in adverse health effects. Irish pork was back on the market on December 12th and a compensation package was funded for the Irish pork industry.

Outcomes

Media attentions from both traditional and social media channels were extensive, but only lasted for a very short period of time. Traditional media relied on diverse information sources in reporting a wide range of topics including health concerns, economic impacts, governments’ handling etc. In comparison, social media responded faster and diminished faster, often referred to traditional media news, and had different stress in story focus.

Irish authorities received a huge amount of queries from both media and the public. Once the health concerns eased, attentions moved to food safety irrelevant issues like product refund, compensation, environmental concerns in relation to disposal of products, etc. Collaboration among all related departments occurred and the websites were timely updated to full-fill the public’s information needs.

A post-crisis survey on public opinions shows that, the risks posed to human health were perceived to be high. The majority of respondents accepted that the way in which the authorities managed the crisis was ‘adequate’ or ‘very efficient’. Another research shows that people’s behaviour and attitude towards pork products have not changed significantly after the crisis.

Lessons learned

Crisis communication should be performed timely. Due to the fact that there are mutual influences between traditional and social media, communication professionals should consider them as a whole while making communication strategies. Social media monitoring is necessary, because the crisis may be discussed and interpreted in different ways than traditional media.

It’s important to have effective communication mechanism in place before an incident arises, such as backup staff in dealing with queries, quick web content updating mechanism and revised helpline voice message prompt to direct consumers to alternative information sources in case it’s too busy to get through.

Effective communication during food crisis may help reduce negative perceptions of crisis management and negative attitudes towards certain food products.

 

  • Board Bia. (2010). Global media report of online news coverage on Irish pork and Dioxin between 01/12/2008 and 19/10/1010. (Internal material)
  • Kennedy, J., Delaney, L., McGloin, A., & WALL, P. G. (2009). Public perceptions of the dioxin crisis in Irish pork UCD Geary Institute Discussion Paper Series. Geary Institute, University College Dublin, Ireland. http://www.ucd.ie/geary/static/publications/workingpapers/gearywp200919.pdf
  • MacKenzie, K. J. (2010). Independent review of the dioxin incident in Northern Ireland, December 2008. http://www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/independent-dioxin-report.pdf
  • SafeFood (2008). Minutes of the 64th meeting of the advisory board of safeFood. http://www.safefood.eu/SafeFood/media/SafeFoodLibrary/Documents/About%20Us/Advisory%20Board%20Minutes/December-2008-Minutes-of-the-64th-meeting-of-the-Advisory-Board-of-safefood.pdf
  • Shan, L., Regan, A., De Brun, A., Barnett, J., van der Sanden, M. C. A., Wall, P., & McConnon, A. (2012). Food crisis coverage by social and traditional media: A case study of the 2008 Irish dioxin crisis. Public Understanding of Science, (in press). doi: 10.1177/0963662512472315
     

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