A public health crisis or a crisis in communication? The listeriosis outbreak in Canada lends credence to Peter Sandman’s formula that risk f = hazard + outrage. Expectations of a growing death toll were confirmed today with news of an infant death in Manitoba. Yet just yesterday morning the issue seemed to be dipping below the threshold of scientific concern with the re-opening of the Maple Leaf Foods plant that was at the centre of the crisis. But there’s a big difference, Sandman argues, between hazards and outrage. Where hazards are based on the technical assessments of experts, outrage operates in the more contingent and uncertain arena of public opinion. When news broke late last night that in August, at the height of the crisis, Tory agriculture minister Gerry Ritz cracked inappropriate and insensitive remarks in a conference call with scientists, risk communication managers, and policy strategists, the issue was thrust back into the glare of the media spotlight at high velocity.
That the Minister’s remarks were leaked partway through the election campaign suggests that even when scientific assessments of risk may be dissipating, as a communications issue they can create new and unexpected political problems. It will be interesting to see whether there will be any fallout from Ritz’s remarks – although victims are calling for the minister’s resignation, the PM refuses to apologize, dismissing his minister’s comments as “clearly inappropriate” but also arguing that the comments “shouldn’t detract from the good work that he has done to get on top and to understand this matter, to improve the system and to communicate publicly with Canadians and to make sure government officials are all doing their jobs.” Conservative strategists must be wincing at what is yet another blunder in a campaign of missteps and apologies.
With this latest development, will opposition parties, interest groups and civil society organizations concerned about food security and public health be able to put the government’s recent controversial changes to food safety regulations onto the electoral agenda?