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State of the Plate

Your serving of field-to-fork news.

Oct 92018

Food safety in America—time to bolster consumer confidence

In a national survey of 500 consumers from across the country, food and ag marketing agency Charleston|Orwig found that Americans believe the safest food can be found in one place—at home. More than 77% of consumers say that cooking a meal in their own kitchens is the best way to ensure it is safe to eat. 

The survey, conducted in conjunction with independent consultant Maeve Webster of Menu Matters, reached out to individuals of all age groups. Respondents were split between those 55 and over and those under that age, with about 10% more women responding than men.  

The second safest place to eat, according to American consumers, is at a restaurant, with more than 59% of consumers considering this to be a reliable option. The lowest on the list were food trucks or public vendors, with just 29% of respondents considering these safe and almost 42% considering this option potentially unsafe. 

When asked if they trust the overall food industry—from farming to processing to retailing—to be vigilant about food safety, only about half (48%) of consumers say yes while a solid 27% say no. This certainly is a point of some concern. Roughly one fourth of the population is unsure about the safety of their food supply.  

Americans are somewhat split on whether or not food is safer than it was ten years ago. The good news is that about 35% say food is safer. Of concern are the almost 32% who say food is less safe. It is interesting to note that men and those 65 and older are more likely to consider food to be safer than ten years ago. On a related question, some 59% of respondents assume food from individual farmers, food manufacturers or restaurants is safe if they have not heard about a specific problem. Curiously, having had a food-borne illness did not make a person think food was less safe than participants overall. 

The breakouts on how people find information on food safety reinforce that age often defines media choices. Consumers 18-34 skew toward social media as a primary information source at 42% versus 23% for those older. Consumers 35-44 rank news websites as their top choice for food safety information at 44%. Many older adults still see traditional news outlets—ABC, CBS, NBC—as primary information sources. The second most important information source for all age groups regarding food safety is personal experience or the experience of family, friends and co-workers.  

What do people consider to be the safest foods? Overall 49% say grains, beans and pasta are safest followed by fresh fruits and vegetables at 42%. On the other side of the equation, 55% say meat and poultry are the riskiest to eat. This divide could be tied to people’s overall perception of what makes up a healthy diet. Leafy greens and lettuce were tied with processed food as the next category of highest concern with 45% rating them risky.  

More than half of consumers, 56% and 55% respectively, say that official USDA and FDA ratings or safety certifications for farmers and manufacturers would give them greater confidence in our food supply. This is particularly true with women and older consumers, those 55 and older. These two audiences slightly skew the results. Transparency on practices related to growing and processing food also rates high with consumers, with 51% and 46% respectively saying this would give them greater confidence in the safety of food. Americans 18-34 score the same as others regarding their interest in transparency related to food, farming and food manufacturing, but lower related to certifications and government ratings.   

Overall conclusions

Studies show that our overall food supply is safer than at any time in history. Regardless, the increased ability to detect and track food-borne illnesses, coupled with news of problems from traditional and digital platforms, makes information regarding food safety problems ever more prevalent and impactful. From farmers to processors and manufacturers to retailers, the industry needs to do a better job of ensuring consumers believe food is safe. Currently, confidence in the food system is mediocre at best. If your business or organization depends on or is part of the food system, now is the time to take action. 

The marketing and communications team at Charleston|Orwig is passionate about food and agriculture. Contact Mark Gale—mark.g@charlestonorwig.com—to discuss our food safety research or how we can help bolster your reputation. 

 

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