WOOSTER, Ohio -- Every year, an estimated one in six Americans gets sick from foodborne illness. Three thousand of them die.
Those statistics are frustrating for Lydia Medeiros and Jeff LeJeune. The researchers are among a half-dozen go-to experts on food safety at Ohio State University. They've dedicated their careers to learning about disease-causing pathogens and getting the word out to let people know how they can protect themselves.
But telling people what to do is quite different than people actually doing it.
"Apparently, beating people over the head with data doesn't work," said LeJeune, a microbiologist with Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.
That's why these educators are studying techniques from the fields of psychology and risk communications: They want to find more effective ways of communicating food safety messages that 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?’" LeJeune said. "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, said Medeiros.
“For pregnant women, for example, it's protecting the health of the baby," she said.
Messages about food safety need to be tailored to audiences depending on what's motivating them to behave in a certain way, she said.
LeJeune and Medeiros will present preliminary results of their research and have organized and will lead an international workshop, "New Paradigms in Food Safety Communication: An Interactive Workshop," on May 14 at the International Association for Food Protection's European Symposium on Food Safety in Marseille, France.
LeJeune heads the Food Animal Health Research Program (FAHRP) with the college's Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Program (OARDC) in Wooster and also has an appointment with Ohio State University Extension. Medeiros is faculty emeritus in FAHRP and former food safety specialist with OSU Extension. She came out of retirement specifically to work on this project. OARDC and OSU Extension are the college's research and outreach arms, respectively.
Both LeJeune and Medeiros have done extensive research previously on food safety communication and education. LeJeune has worked on projects to reach dairy and vegetable workers about food safety on the farm, and Medeiros has examined the effectiveness of food safety messages for at-risk groups, including pregnant women; infants, children and the elderly; people with cancer, HIV or AIDS; and organ transplant patients (http://foodsafety.osu.edu/ask-the-pros/health-professionals/hrfs/).
For this 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.
In the current study, the researchers have focused 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" program and pick up their share of milk directly from the farm.
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," Medeiros explained. "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 said “It's not just 'Let's throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.'"
Medeiros said 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," Medeiros said. "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 said.
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 said “There's not any real difference."
That poses a problem for food safety communicators, LeJeune said.
"If you think you have knowledge, and you really don't…"
Medeiros finished his thought: "Then you're not going to go out and seek more information."
And whether an audience is receptive to new information is key, Medeiros said.
"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 behavior change," she said.
At the May conference in Marseille, the researchers will present a draft of the food-safety mental model they have identified from the pilot study. After conducting the national survey and finalizing the model, they plan to develop a food safety communication campaign based on the data they've gathered. They will post additional information online at http://foodsafety.osu.edu.
The study is funded by the National Integrated Food Safety Initiative of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.