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Analysis of governmental Web sites on food safety issues: A Global Perspective.

Introduction

Food safety has been a growing consumer concern over the last few decades, and it remains a priority for consumers, the food industry, and regulators alike (Almanza, Nelson, & Lee, 2003; Brewer & Prestat, 2002; Brom, 2000; Mead et al., 1999; Miles, Brennan, Kuznesof, Ness, & Frewer, 2004). The emphasis on food safety is likely related to several factors, including greater visibility of national statistics on the causes of foodborne illness, changes in regulations that improve the inspection system and the training of food service managers, and previous food safety research that highlights the need for improvements in specific food practices (Almanza & Sneed, 2003).

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The trend in food safety awareness has spiked as foodborne-illness outbreaks have reduced consumer confidence in the healthfulness of food products (Miles, Braxton, & Frewer, 1999). Although the general level of food safety concern has increased, annual surveys conducted by the Economic Research Service (U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2002) have revealed that consumer confidence has been declining since 1996 (USDA, 2002). Food safety is important to all consumers, and it is clear that food safety issues call for a governmental response, because in many ways it is beyond the abilities of individual consumers to deal with these issues (Rippe, 1999).

Public Concern and Knowledge About Food Safety Issues

Because of the growing concern surrounding food safety issues, consumer attitudes toward food safety issues have been a perennial topic of research. Previous studies have addressed levels of consumers' concern and major issues related to food safety, which have changed over time (Brewer & Prestat, 2002; Miles et al., 2004). Some remarkable events that have occurred over the past 30 years may have affected consumers' attitudes about food safety (Brewer & Prestat, 2002). Temporary increases in concern about food safety can result from occurrences such as the Alar contamination of apples and the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak on the West Coast. Long-term issues, such as irradiation and the use of genetically modified organisms, also continue to shape the debate over food safety (Brewer & Prestat, 2002).

Furthermore, the increase in global travel heightens the need for continued awareness and proactive management of food safety issues to sustain a favorable consumer opinion and growth of the world's tourism industry (Landro, 2005). The National Sanitation Foundation International's conference on Food Safety in Travel and Tourism, held in Barcelona, Spain, in 2000, represented the first attempt to bring together the world's food safety and tourism research communities (MacLaurin, 2001). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the most common health problem for travelers is gastrointestinal ailments caused by contaminated food or water, especially in developing countries in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (Landro, 2005). Realizing the growing concern surrounding food safety issues during travel, prestigious institutions such as CDC (www.cdc.gov/travel), the World Health Organization (WHO) (www.who.int/ith/en), and the State Department (www.travel.state.gov) have created comprehensive sites that provide information for travelers, including updates on disease outbreaks, recommended vaccinations for travelers of all ages, advice on health risks, and guidelines for preparing a travel health kit. There is no doubt that food safety is an important component of overall travel safety.

The Importance of Web Sites as a Major Information Source on Food Safety Issues

Scrutiny of the way consumers use the Internet as an information source has become an intriguing subject for both researchers and practitioners (Bei, Chen, & Widdows, 2004). The growing dependence on the Internet as an information source is due to the easy access it provides to necessary information and the availability of abundant information (Porter, 2001). In addition, numerous studies regarding Web site evaluation criteria have been conducted in various sectors (Alastair, 2001; Barnes & Vidgen, 1999; Kapoun, 1998; King, 1999; Wittman, 1999); however, no consensus has been reached on validated standards because the criteria can differ depending on the objective of each Web site (Chen & Wells, 1999). Despite the growing concern about food safety issues and the growing dependence on the Internet for information searches, there is no validated and objective standard for Web site usability in terms of contents geared toward food safety information. No studies, to the authors' knowledge, have examined how the media, particularly Web sites, cover information about food safety and what information is being covered by Web sites. Because of the limitations of previous research, ranging from where people obtain food safety information to what information is available, the idiosyncratic nature of Web sites that cover food safety-related information needs to be carefully scrutinized.

Purpose of Study

The study reported here examined the status of governmental Web sites on food safety issues during the year 2005 and evaluated Web site usability, especially information dimensionality such as utility, currency, and the relevance of contents from the perspective of the English-speaking consumer. Moreover, it aims to provide a set of useful Web sites for offering relevant information on food safety issues to professionals and other potential audiences.

Methods

The study started by exploring comprehensive and prestigious Web sites such as the WHO Web site and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Web site to see what content they provide and how they present information about food safety issues. To select a representative sample, the study searched testable Web sites, considering regional distribution, economic status, and vulnerability on the basis of the classification of WHO membership. While the WHO membership does not provide a completely representative sample of the Web sites the public might encounter in their daily lives, WHO is one of the most prestigious organizations in the realm of public health, including for food safety issues (David & Haberlen, 2005). Out of the 192 nation members of WHO, 111 were found to operate 171 comprehensive health-related Web sites that covered food safety issues during the month of August 2005. This preliminary effort focused on the operation and status of governmental Web sites on food safety issues and excluded commercial Web sites.

The procedure for Web site analysis consisted of six elements: 1) representative selection of nations, 2) selection of searchable Web sites, 3) analysis of Web site usability variables and relevant coding-frame decisions, 4) actual Web site analysis, 5) data entry in Microsoft Excel, and 6) statistical analysis. The selection of variables to be analyzed in the study was based on Web site usability criteria pertinent to the research objectives.

Each testable Web site was probed and coded for several variables related to Web site usability: 1) the availability of the system--that is, whether users could open a Web page or not; 2) number of languages offered; 3) provision of search engines to look for necessary information; 4) provision of related links for additional information; 5) information currency--that is, when the information was last updated; 6) English language availability--that is, whether the Web site provided an English version or not; and 7) provision of food safety information, especially on foodborne-disease outbreaks and travel and health issues.

A short questionnaire was developed for Web site analysis. Two experienced and qualified researchers conducted data entry and data analysis on the basis of the coded variables. Statistical analysis was performed with SPSS (12.0) for descriptive analysis.

Results

From among 192 WHO members, the research selected 111 countries that operated governmental Web sites. The study explored 171 searchable Web sites that provided food safety-related information, such as Web sites run by the ministry/department of health and the ministry/department of food. On the basis of WHO member classification, the study investigated 15 Web sites that were from 12 nations in Africa, 40 Web sites from 24 nations in the Americas, 10 Web sites from 6 nations in South East Asia, 61 Web sites from 38 nations in the Eastern Mediterranean, and 23 Web sites from 15 nations in the Western Pacific region (Table 1).

Among the 171 searchable Web sites, 123 (71.9 percent) were accessible, and 48 (28.1 percent) were not currently accessible (Table 2). The inaccessible Web sites appeared to be either under construction or no longer available. After selecting accessible and English-language-available Web sites, the authors evaluated Web site usability variables such as the number of possible languages, search engine availability, related-link availability, and information currency (Table 2).

The analysis revealed that the mean and standard deviation of the number of possible languages available was 1.55 [+ or -] 1.02. Among 123 accessible Web sites, 65 percent (80 of 123) of the Web sites offered only one language, either English or the native language of the country the Web site originated in, and 26.8 percent (33 of 123) offered two languages; 8.1 percent (10 of 123) of Web sites offered more than three languages. The primary languages offered were Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, and Spanish. On most Web sites offering more than two languages, however, the available contents differed among the languages offered. More specifically, English versions of Web sites were often lacking in data offered by the native-language version.

To evaluate the utility of the information, the authors examined the availability of search engines and the presence of related links. Among Web sites in languages the authors were able to identify, a majority (72.6 percent) offered search engines. On about a third of the Web sites that provided search engines (24 out of 85), users couldn't get any information if they searched in English. Along the same lines, 90.3 percent (102 out of 113) of Web sites offered related links for additional information. The international links most often cited were WHO, FAO, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). For U.S. links, CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Center for Environmental Health (NCEH) were often cited. While 83.7 percent (103 out of 123) of Web sites offered related links, 12.6 percent (13 out of 103) of links did not work or did not lead to information.

Information currency and timeliness are also crucial factors describing the quality of information content in an online context (Deshpande & Zaltman, 1987). When the study investigated how often the Web sites were updated, the most frequent category was "updated everyday," at 48.7 percent (56 of 115). The next most frequent category was "latest update date is from January 2005 to July 2005." This finding showed that national health-related Web sites, in general, presented current information.

Finally, the content of Web sites was examined. Rosen and Purinton (2002) define Web site content as communicated material of any type appearing on a Web site and cite content as the primary reason users visit a Web site. To meet the objective of this study of reflecting the perspective of the English-speaking consumer, English language availability was investigated (Table 3). After selecting Web sites available in English, the authors examined further Web site content on food safety issues, especially food-borne-disease outbreaks and travel and health. Among 123 accessible Web sites, only 65.9 percent (81 of 123) provided an English version of the Web site; 34.1 percent of Web sites did not. The majority (69.9 percent) of the Web sites with English versions available offered general information about foodborne-disease outbreaks, such as incident rate and vulnerability, surveillance systems, and preventive actions. Only 31.5 percent, however, provided information about travel- and health-related issues, such as potential health risks for travelers and precautions. This result indicated that specific information about travel and health issues should be supplemented in the health- and food-related Web sites to satisfy possible travelers going outside the United States.

Discussion and Conclusion

The analysis presented here suggests that the information utility of governmental health- and food-related Web sites is limited, even with the growing dependence on the Internet for information. In addition, despite the growing concern over food safety issues and increasing demand for global travel, Web sites do not appear to generate much detailed information about these topics.

It is important to note that 81 nations out of the 192 members of WHO do not have their own national Web sites to present health- and food-related information. The nonexistence of such Web sites for many nations indicates that the information needs of users are not being met. Moreover, 65 percent of the Web sites are available in only one language, and more than a third (34.1 percent) of Web sites do not provide an English language version. Even though 35 percent of the Web sites provide information in more than two languages, the English language content was totally different. More specifically, the English language content was less likely to contain information about food safety issues and access to necessary information.

Furthermore, despite the presence of Web sites of comprehensive organizations such as WHO and FAO, Web site usability in terms of information dimensionality varies among regions. More specifically, the Web sites provide less information about food safety issues in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Western Pacific than about the Americas and European regions. Therefore, U.S. travelers going outside the latter regions would have difficulties in accessing the necessary information.

With respect to currency of information, the study found that 48.7 percent of Web sites are updated daily. More than half of the Web sites, however, do not update daily. Given that health and food are essential, directly associated with the safety of human lives, health- and food-related Web sites should be updated daily in a prompt manner so that users can get timely information.

As the number of discerning Internet users continues to rise, it is imperative that Web sites provide them with high-quality information (Lindroos, 1997). Web site coverage of food safety issues neither provides the public with sufficient information nor leads to greater public knowledge about risks. It would be desirable to study further what content should be included and how it should be effectively and efficiently presented in an online context.

The limitations of this study include lack of an actual survey of users' perspectives. A questionnaire survey of those who use the Internet on a daily basis would be one suggestion for future study. A survey could address what sources of information users use, what kind of information related to food safety issues users seek to find, and how satisfied they are with the information sources. In addition, the study reported here evaluated only the contents of Web sites that provide an English language version; therefore, the research findings about Web site contents would not be generalizable to all Web sites that provide information about health and food issues. Because of the limitations of this research, ranging from research methodology to language availability to the evaluation of Web sites written in languages other than English, Web site usability needs to be carefully scrutinized and empirically addressed.

The research analyzed the current status of governmental Web sites on food safety issues. Further study could figure out a measurement scale to assess Web site usability. The results of the study reported here could be used as important decision-making clues for entities opening a new Web site addressing general health- and food safety-related issues or refining currently operated Web sites, thereby leading to more practical use of Web sites.

Microbiological issues, chemical issues, technological issues, and travel and health issues have been major areas of food safety concern and still need to be further investigated. In the future, it will be desirable to encourage consumers to follow food safety practices in their daily lives by providing more personally relevant information. Table 4 identifies useful international and U.S. government food safety-related Web sites. Effective risk communication about food safety by Web sites seems to be essential if consumers are to mitigate food safety-related risks. In particular, efforts should be made in food safety risk communication, and attention should be paid to more frequent and significant causes of food safety issues, as well as to the understanding of globalization and the growing importance of Web sites as a major information source.

Corresponding Author: Young Namkung, Ph.D. Student, Purdue University, Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, 700 W State Street, West Lafayette, IN 47907-2059. E-mail: ynamkung@purdue.edu.

REFERENCES

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Almanza, B., & Sneed, J. (2003, Spring). Food safety and HACCP in schools. The Journal of Child Nutrition & Management, 27(1). Retrieved May 20, 2006, from http://docs.schoolnutrition.org/newsroom/jcnm/03spring/almanza/.

Almanza, B.A., Nelson, C.D., & Lee, M.L. (2003). Food service health inspectors' opinions on the reporting of inspections in the media. Journal of Environmental Health, 65(10), 9-14.

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Brewer, M.S., & Prestat, C. J. (2002). Consumer attitudes toward food safety issues. Journal of Food Safety, 22(2), 67-83.

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Young Namkung, M.S., R.D.

Barbara A. Almanza, Ph.D., R.D., C.F.S.P.
TABLE 1 Regional Distribution of Web Sites According to WHO
Classification

 Number of WHO Number of Nations Number of Web Sites
Region Members (%) Selected* (%) Investigated** (%)

Africa 46 (24.0) 12 (10.8) 15 (8.8)
Americas 35 (18.2) 24 (21.6) 40 (23.4)
Southeast Asia 11 (5.7) 6 (5.4) 10 (5.8)
Europe 52 (27.1) 38 (34.2) 61 (35.7)
Eastern 21 (10.9) 16 (14.4) 22 (12.9)
 Mediterranean
Western Pacific 27 (14.1) 15 (13.5) 23 (13.5)
Total 192 (100) 111 (100) 171 (100)

* Nations were selected for this study only if they operated
governmental Web sites related to food safety issues.
** Some nations provide more than two Web sites related to food safety
issues.

TABLE 2 Web Site Usability*

Web Site Usability Variables Frequency (%)

Availability of the system
 Yes 123 (71.9)
 No 48 (28.1)
 Total 171 (100)
Number of possible languages
 1 80 (65.0)
 2 33 (26.8)
 3 2 (1.6)
 4 5 (4.1)
 6 3 (2.4)
 Total 123 (100)
Search engine availability
 Yes 85 (72.6)
 No 32 (27.4)
 Total 117 (100)
Related links availability
 Yes 102 (90.3)
 No 11 (9.7)
 Total 113 (100)
Information currency (date of latest update)
 Updated every day 56 (48.7)
 Jan. 2005~July 2005 48 (41.7)
 Jan. 2004~Dec. 2004 8 (7.0)
 Jan. 2003~Dec. 2003 3 (2.6)
 Before Dec. 2002 0 (0.0)
 Total 115 (100)

*Among Web sites whose language the authors could determine.

TABLE 3 English Language Availability and Contents of Web Sites

Evaluation Criteria Number (%)

English language availability
 Yes 81 (65.9)
 No 42 (34.1)
 Total 123 (100)
Content of Web site (foodborne-disease outbreaks)
 Yes 51 (69.9)
 No 22 (30.1)
 Total 73 (100)
Content of Web site (travel and health)
 Yes 23 (31.5)
 No 50 (68.5)
 Total 73 (100)

TABLE 4 Web Sites That Provide Useful Information About Food Safety
Issues

Organization Title and Web Site
Address Contents of Web Sites

I. International Organizations and Foreign Government Agencies

World Health Organization (WHO), * Disease outbreaks (microbiological
http://www.who.int/en and chemical risk, daily outbreak
 updates, symptoms and treatment
 guidelines, surveillance systems)
 * Travel advisories (vaccination
 requirements, travel risks, and
 precautions)
Food and Agricultural Organization * Safety assurance (good hygiene
of the United Nations (FAO), practices [GHPs], good
http://www.fao.org agricultural practices [GAPs],
 Hazard Analysis and Critical
 Control Point [HACCP] systems)
World Trade Organization (WTO), * Health-related trade restrictions
http://www.wto.org/ and measures (additives, toxic
 substances in food or drink, food
 safety certification, labeling
 requirements)
Organization for Economic * Food safety and agricultural
Cooperation and Development health requirements (international
(OECD), http://www.oecd.org/home/ sanitary, capacity building)
0,2987,en_2649_201185_1_1_1_1_
1.00.html
Codex Alimentarius Commission, * Food standards and regulations
http://www.codexalimentarius.net/ (guidelines on genetically
web/index_en.jsp modified and irradiated foods,
 food safety risk assessment)
International Portal on Food * Legislation and regulation
safety, Animal & Plant Health (maximum residue limit for
(IPFSAPH), http://www.ipfsaph.org/ pesticides, codex standard,
En/default.jsp biotechnology/GMOs)
European Commission (EUROPA), * Press releases, legislation, and
http://europa.eu.int/comm/food/ fact sheets (general food law,
index_en.htm labeling, chemical and biological
 safety, inspection reports,
 communicable-disease networks)
European Food Safety Authority * Risk assessment regarding food
(EFSA), http://www.efsa.eu.int/ and feed safety (collaboration
index en.html with national authorities, open
 consultation with stakeholders,
 scientific advice on existing and
 emerging risks)
European Center for Disease * Infectious-disease outbreaks
Prevention and Control (ECDC), (influenza, SARS, and HIV/AIDS)
http://www.ecdc.eu.int
Euro Surveillance, http:// * Peer-reviewed information on
www.eurosurveillance.org/index- communicable disease surveillance
02.asp?langue=02 and control
International Centre for Genetic * Biosafety and biotechnology
Engineering and Biotechnology
(ICGEB), http://www.icgeb.trieste.
it/~bsafesrv

II U.S. Government Agencies and Organizations
USDA's Food Safety and Inspection * Food safety education (basic food
Service (FSIS), http://www.fsis. safety principles, foodborne
usda.gov/ disease, food labeling)
 * Regulations and policies (HACCP
 systems, federal and state
 inspection programs, risk
 assessments)
 * Food security and emergency
 preparedness
FDA's Center for Food Safety and * Foodborne disease (Bad Bug Book,
Applied Nutrition, http:// Bacteriological Analytical Manual)
www.cfsan.fda.gov/list.html * Chemical risks (color additives,
 pesticides)
 * Biotechnology and Bioterrorism
U.S. Department of Health and * Traveler's health
Human Services (HHS), http:// * Screening and immunization
www.hhs.gov/
CDC, http://www.cdc.gov/ * Foodborne disease
 * Emerging infectious disease
 * Health statistics
 * Traveler's health (immunization
 and vaccination)
NIH, http://www.nih.gov/ * Health and medical research
 (foodborne disease, environmental
 health)
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Title Annotation:FEATURES
Author:Almanza, Barbara A.
Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Article Type:Website overview
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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