Student - June 7, 2007

Students learn to deal with a food safety crisis

What to do when a food crisis occurs? Students doing the Food Safety Management course experienced a crisis simulation last week. A turbulent week of discussion and negotiation started with a press release.

The students did not know if, when or how the simulation would start. ‘Tuesday morning, 29 May, we received a press release, after which we switched immediately to the crisis protocol,’ says Vera van der Velpen, a Food Safety master’s student. Apparently milk with low levels of radioactive components was being sold. The levels were below the legal limit and there were no unacceptable risks for consumers. However, three of the four components are not normally present in milk. ‘Students need to learn what a crisis like this involves and how to make a comparative assessment,’ explained Professor Marcel Zwietering. The course is organised each year by the Laboratory for Food Microbiology, the European Chair in Food Safety Microbiology and the Toxicology department.

The students were divided into three groups, representing consumers, industry and the government. Vera was part of the consumer group. ‘It was very exciting, as we had no idea what was going to happen. It was also hard to follow the protocol we had written at the start of the course and stick to our roles. We had to think as consumer representatives instead of as scientists, decide what to fight for and set priorities.’

Wasma Al-Husainy, who was part of the government group, found the simulation very demanding but interesting. ‘I really got into performing my task as a spokesperson for the government. It didn’t feel like a game at all.’

At first the groups decided not to recall the milk, because contamination levels were within legal safety levels. Reflecting on the government press release and the meeting with the media, Wasma says, ‘I don’t think we underestimated the impact of the crisis, but we didn’t exaggerate it either, as that would have scared the public.’ In the end, the industry representatives decided to do a recall for quality reasons. The consumer organisations stressed that drinking the milk involved no risk, but that consumers should return the milk product and claim a refund.

The outcome of the simulation was – as always – a surprise for Zwietering. ‘Other years the students panicked more. This year maybe they could have been a bit more critical. But looking back you always know what you could have done better. I’m impressed with how well the students did given the time pressure. What’s important is that they’ve experienced a crisis and now recognise the value of a good protocol. And they learned from their mistakes: for example, you should always show a press release to your boss. It’s better to make mistakes while studying, rather than on the job.’

Clear communication, keeping communication channels open, and working as a team are all crucial, Vera and Wasma learned. ‘This was a good exercise on how to work under pressure. I know it will be useful in my professional life,’ says Vera.

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