Food Recalls, Awareness, and Consumer Attitudes

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Food Recalls, Awareness, and Consumer Attitudes

By Carol Glasser on Humane Research Council (HRC)

The recent egg and beef recalls have people discussing food safety over the water-cooler this month. While they have garnered a lot of media attention due to the amount of meat and eggs contaminated, food recalls are not uncommon. Since the beginning of 2010 the USDA alone (the FDA and CDC also manage food recalls) has or is currently managing 56 food recalls. People are always at risk of food contamination, but are they aware of it? And when recalls highlight food safety issues, does it change individuals’ consumptive behaviors?

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The U.S. population appears to be concerned about the safety of their food. A study last month by Thomson Reuters found that 42% of people are “very concerned” about food safety. Over half of the study’s respondents thought meat posed the greatest risk of food borne illness, followed by seafood and fresh produce (about 25% each). Very few respondents (4%) worried about food borne illness due to the consumption of dairy products.

Overall, however, the U.S. population doesn’t seem to be worried that the U.S. food supply is unsafe. A 2009 survey by Burson-Marsteller found that 71% of consumers believe the food supply is safe, despite evidence of food contamination. Similarly, a study by Ipsos and McClatchy found that over half of U.S. adults give the U.S. an “A” or “B” grade when it comes to the safety of our food supply.

But what happens when there is food contamination? Does that change consumer confidence or behavior? Studies investigating this issue suggest it does. According to a study of over 4,000 consumers in four countries, “beef food safety events have contributed to considerable market volatility, produced varied consumer reactions [and] created policy debates.” In response to food safety issues many consumers want more oversight and labels.

Bryan Salvage of MeatPoultry.com found that not only do food safety concerns change shopping habits, but that consumers want product labeling to ensure safety and are willing to pay for this added security:

“U.S. consumers want to see evidence on product labels, that the food they are buying has passed some kind of independent safety-certification process... Slightly more than one-third of consumers indicate a willingness to pay a premium, upwards of 30% more, for products with safety-certification label.”

Consumers are aware that food borne illness is a risk and when recalls occur it changes their willingness to buy certain foods. While U.S. consumers are generally trusting of the food supply in the United States, new labeling standards are a welcome addition and an added level of safety for which they are willing to pay. In fact, U.S. consumers are interested in a variety of labeling efforts, including labels that indicate the country of origin of meat sold as food, if food was genetically modified, if more humane slaughter procedures were used, and whether meat came from animals that were cloned.