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The Irish vs the Belgian dioxin crisis

Two incidents involving dioxin contamination of food led to crises in Belgium and the Republic of Ireland in 1999 and 2008, respectively. Analysis of the management of the two crises by their respective federal governments led to the development of an effective crisis management model.

Background

Dioxins are by-products of industrial chemical processes, released into the environment when the chemical reactions are not properly controlled or when the wastes are mismanaged. In the summer of 1999, a crisis involving dioxin contamination of feed and foodstuffs unfolded in Belgium. A similar crisis developed in the Republic of Ireland in the winter of 2008. The government of each nation was the primary manager of their respective crisis. Of the two crises, one was poorly managed, while the other was managed quite successfully.

Outcomes

In the case of poor management, Belgian authorities delayed informing the public of the dioxin contamination once confirmed, failed to acknowledge the true risk to consumers, and lost the trust of the public and the media regarding the dioxin contamination. Where Belgian authorities failed in 1999, Irish authorities triumphed with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland quickly working to confirm the presence of dioxins, promptly communicating the risk levels and safety measures initiated, and controlling the public messaging via labelling mandates and timely public announcements.

The failure of the Belgian government to include the interest and concerns of the public in the decision-making process led to widespread distrust in the government by both consumers and importing nations. In contrast, prompt and detailed communication by Irish authorities maintained the trust of the public and other nations throughout the crisis management.

Lessons learned

The analysis of the management of the two crises in addition to a subsequent review of crisis management literature, led to the development of an effective three-factor crisis management model: prompt communication, risk acknowledgment, and stigma control. Such as model may insulate industries associated with the crisis against damaged reputations, promote trust and respect for government authorities, and inform consumers about their own food risk.

 

Jacob CJ, Lok C, Morley K & Powell DA. (2011). Government management of two media-facilitated crises involving dioxin contamination of food. Public Understanding of Science 20:261-269.

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