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How Concerned Are Consumers about Food Safety?

Shoppers are only somewhat or slightly concerned about the safety of the U.S. food supply despite frequent food safety outbreaks, reports NPD.

By NPD Group

Even with frequent food safety outbreaks and recalls, concern levels about the safety of the U.S. food supply remain relatively constant – although there are temporary spikes when news of an outbreak occurs, according to The NPD Group, a Chicago-based market research firm.

NPD's Food Safety Monitor, which continually tracks consumer awareness and concern about food safety issues, shows that for the period from January through August 2012, on average, 60 percent of U.S. consumers were somewhat or slightly concerned about the safety of the U.S. food supply, 25 percent were extremely or very concerned, and 15 percent not concerned at all. The food safety concern levels in 2012 are on par with previous years.

On a bi-weekly basis, when the Food Safety Monitor survey is conducted, there are fluctuations in the percentages of consumers who are not or are concerned about the safety of the U.S. food supply based on whether or not there is a food safety issue in the news, but the annual averages remain relatively constant.

Every other week a representative sample of approximately 500 U.S. adults are asked a series of questions related to food safety, and NPD then issues the results in its monthly Food Safety Monitor.

The NPD Group Food Safety Monitor tracks consumer awareness and concern about food safety issues including salmonella, e coli, mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease, acrylamide, trans fats, mercury in fish, avian bird flu and listeria. Consumers also are surveyed about their eating intentions of foods including fast food burgers, chicken, ham, steak, fish/seafood, breakfast cereals, butter, milk, cookies and more.

Since November 2007, the Food Safety Monitor survey includes this question: "How concerned are you about the safety of the U.S. food supply?" See the answers in the accompanying table.

There are spikes and then a leveling off with specific food safety outbreaks, according to NPD. For example, this past summer, in July and August, there were outbreaks and product recalls involving listeria contamination. In mid-July, a California-based onion plant recalled all onions processed at its plant because of listeria contamination, and since a wide variety of products use the plant's chopped, slivered and peeled onions, there were subsequent recalls of ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook foods issued by supermarkets and manufacturers.

In mid-August, pre-sliced apples distributed by a New Jersey plant to fast-food and grocery chains across the country were among packaged products being recalled due to possible contamination with listeria bacteria.

Listeria is a bacteria that causes food poisoning and is especially dangerous to the elderly, people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women. Awareness of and concern about listeria peaked during the time the outbreaks were widely reported and then leveled off when the news subsided.

"The impact of a food recall on consumer attitudes and perceptions often depends on the amount of news coverage received, or the severity of the situation in terms of numbers sickened or dead as a result," says Darren Seifer, NPD food and beverage industry analyst. "Recalls, unfortunately, have become more commonplace, but consumers are creatures of habit. It takes a lot for us to change what we eat."

How concerned are you about the safety of the U.S. food supply?

(% of adults who are…)
  2010 Average 2011 Average Jan-August 2012 Average
Extremely concerned 10 9 9
Very concerned 16 16 16
Somewhat concerned 29 28 29
Slightly concerned 31 31 30
Not at all concerned 14 15 15
Source: The NPD Group/Food Safety Monitor