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Study sheds light on consumer food safety behaviors

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 16-Mar-2011
Last updated on 21-Mar-2011 at 16:48 GMT

Food safety messages need to be clear and targeted to drive the behavior of consumers, who are generally not confident in the safety of the US food supply, according to a new study.

The study, published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, said that despite a plethora of food safety messages, the rate of foodborne illness in the United States is still at a concerning level. The most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48m Americans become ill as a result of foodborne pathogens each year, about 375,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

This new research is intended to help create a large-scale database on food, beverage and eating situation safety, based on the perceptions of consumers.

The study involved measuring reactions to various food safety messages that have been used by the food industry, government and academia to communicate food safety to consumers. The messages included: ‘When in doubt, throw it out’; ‘keep clean’; ‘wash hands’; ‘refrigerate foods after 2 hours at room temperature’; ‘do not cross contaminate’; ‘keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold’; ‘sanitize’; and ‘reheat to >165F’.

The researchers carried out an online survey involving 239 participants, to find out about their reactions to these food safety messages as well as their attitudes to food safety in general. They found that irradiation and genetic modification led consumers to perceive food as less safe, while locally produced foods were considered to be more safe.

“When it comes to the nature of food, organic or natural foods were perceived to be safe when hygienic procedures were followed in food preparation,” the researchers wrote. “The perceived safety of a food increased when associated with the rising social food trends of organic foods, natural foods, fresh foods, and sustainability.”

The most common food safety messages communicated to consumers refer to hand washing, adequate cooking and cross contamination, with proper storage and sources also mentioned as key, but of lesser urgency.

“Knowledge of food safety alone, however, does not ensure compliance with food safety guidelines accepted by the scientific community,” the researchers wrote.

They said that there is evidence that people are optimistic about their own susceptibility to foodborne illness, believing that they are less likely to become ill than others.

The researchers also found that consumers would be willing on average to spend an extra 12 percent on foods positioned as ‘safe’.

The least trusted food safety messages as determined by the study were: ‘The US has the safest foods in the world’; ‘There are many ethnic foods and their safety is questionable’; and ‘Imported foods are not as safe as our foods prepared in the US’.

“To improve consumers’ trust and the credibility of the messages in food safety communication, it is recommended that those elements that received very low safety impact values not be used, either alone or even in combination with other food safety messages,” the researchers wrote.

Source: Food Quality and Preference

doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2011.02.005

“Uncovering the Mind-sets of Consumers towards Food Safety Messages”

Authors: A.A. Saulo, H.R. Moskowitz

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