The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Consumer Attitudes About Safety

Consumer Attitudes About Safety

Food Safety Update

August 30, 2009

Roughly half of Americans (49%) are confident in the safety of the U.S. food supply, according to data presented in the International Food Information Council Foundation’s (IFIC) 2009 Food and Health Survey. The survey, conducted annually since 2006, provides insight into how consumers view their own diets and their efforts to improve them. 

“Our 2009 survey provides a snapshot of the American consumer along with valuable insights on how consumers view the safety of our food supply, food safety responsibility and key food safety issues,” says Tony Flood, Food Safety Communications for IFIC.

When asked about which food safety issue is of most concern, 52% of participants selected bacteria, like E.coli and Salmonella, while roughly one-third chose chemicals in food, like melamine; two percent chose food allergens. The Americans that are most likely to name foodborne illness as a top concern are women, and those who are between the ages of 25 and 44, or 65 and older.

In terms of responsibility, 73% of Americans believe that food manufacturers are responsible for U.S. food safety and 72% believe that responsibility belongs to the government. Farmers (57%), retailers (49%) and consumers (41%) pulled in additional percentages. Although only 25% of Americans believe that all five sectors mentioned should share food safety responsibilities, most (68%) believe that at least two sectors should be sharing food safety responsibilities rather than relying on one sector to go it alone.

“The 2009 survey indicates that while there are certain sectors of the food industry that are viewed as more responsible than others, about one-quarter of Americans understand and respect the fact that food safety is a shared responsibility,” says Flood. “I think we are close to making inroads when we talk about these issues with our families, friends and even within our communities. The shared responsibility message is beginning to resonate with consumers. We’re looking to manufacturers and government first, but we also understand that we have a role to play too.”

Media coverage of recent food safety events has also led to some more food safety awareness, says Flood. Americans that chose bacteria as the most important food safety concern reported regularly performing safety actions when cooking, preparing and consuming their food, showing their understanding of the connection between food safety actions and preventing the spread of foodborne illness. Consumers who reported feeling confident about the food supply similarly performed food prep safety actions.

While the majority of Americans (95%) say they regularly take food safety precautions – like hand washing (87%) and cleaning their cutting boards with soap and water (77%), just 25% use a food thermometer to check the doneness of meat and poultry and less than three-quarters say they cook food products to the required temperature. Unfortunately, many of the food safety practices discussed in the survey came in at significantly lower percentages than in 2008.

“The percentages are very good, but they have fallen quite a bit from last year. It’s very possible that consumers actually take food safety for granted and are just beginning to understand our significant role in ensuring safe food at home,” says Flood. “This really provides a great opportunity for all of us to turn up the volume on food safety with tips that everyone can incorporate into their daily routine.”

With the annual campaign to heighten awareness about food safety kicking into gear this month – September is Food Safety Education Month – retailers have a rare opportunity to learn from these statistics and fill in the gaps. There’s a lot of ground to cover. Nineteen percent of Americans say they face obstacles when handling food safely; 9% say they lack interest in safe food handling at all. Twenty-four percent of Americans say they are not confident in the food supply.

“Retailers are viewed as critical stakeholders in ensuring food safety and even promoting confidence in the food supply as well. Working together, understanding consumer needs and communicating about the benefits of a safe food supply can really go a long way,” says Flood.

He adds, “Food safety is one of a number of key priorities for the Obama Administration. For years, other issues such as nutrition and obesity have overshadowed food safety awareness. We are excited and pleased to see that food safety is now getting the attention it has long deserved. Overall, communicating about food safety adds to the health and well being of all Americans.”