Consumer Perception Of Food-Related Illness Troubling

NEW YORK — Over the past several years Americans have seen numerous food recalls related to our nations food supply. Spinach, peanut butter and even pet food are just some of the food items that have been subject to massive recalls. While the safety of our food supply is mission critical for our food manufacturers and suppliers, fully four in ten (42%) Americans indicate they have become sick or ill over the past two years from what they attribute (at least in part) to something they ate.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll of 2,010 adults surveyed online between January 13 and 15, 2010 by Harris Interactive.

While some who attribute an illness to a food item may have contracted their illness elsewhere, the perception of a food-attributed illness poses a major problem for our nations food manufacturers and suppliers. In fact, seven in ten (69%) of those who attribute an illness to a food item think they know what made them sick.

As a result, one-quarter (26%) of those who indicate they became sick from something they ate have eliminated that food from their diet entirely. Moreover, another 15% indicate that they advised family, friends and colleagues not to eat that food item, increasing the impact of their individual experience.

Americans give Food Manufacturers and Suppliers the Benefit of the Doubt

While many people will stop a behavior such as eating a food item that they believe made them sick, most Americans do not have large levels of concern regarding the safety of eating different foods. However, among four types of foods (fresh, canned, frozen and other packaged foods), two in ten adults are either extremely or very concerned that fresh foods are safe to eat (21%), followed by canned foods (15%), other packaged foods such as boxes, jars, bags, etc. (14%) and frozen foods (13%).

When we cast our net broader and include those who are at least somewhat concerned we see that at least three quarters to one half of Americans are concerned to some extent that these foods are safe to eat: fresh foods (73%), other packaged foods such as boxes, jars, bags, etc. (64%), canned foods (59%), and frozen foods (53%). Those who are at least somewhat concerned that fresh foods are safe to eat are most concerned about fresh meats (31%), fresh poultry (23%), fresh fish (20%), vegetables (16%) and fruit (8%).

For our nations food manufacturers and suppliers these findings show the importance of ensuring food safety. While Americans generally trust that our foods are safe to eat, the result of a food related illness can be a severe consumer backlash in the form of a permanent de-selection and grass roots advocacy against consumption of a food product that can extend well after a bad experience. At its worst, food illnesses can lead to heightened media scrutiny and more legislative and regulatory efforts at the local, state and national level.

General Knowledge about the Health and Nutritional Value of Foods is Low

Apart from issues related to the safety of our foods, concerns about obesity are already influencing public policy decisions, including a recent Executive Order from the President, and the types of foods available to Americans in restaurants and grocery stores across the country. While some Americans are opting for organic and other healthier foods, most Americans do not feel particularly knowledgeable about health and nutritional value of the foods their family eats on a regular basis. In fact, only one quarter (27%) of Americans feel either extremely or very knowledgeable about the health and nutritional value of the foods their family eats.

Why are Americans Gaining Weight?

Recent studies, including the annual Harris Polls on the subject, indicate that roughly two-thirds of Americans are officially classified as either overweight or obese based on their Body Mass Index (BMI). While a variety of factors are influencing this trend, between sedentary lifestyles or food choices a majority of Americans (57%) feel sedentary lifestyles and a lack of physical activity play a larger role than individual food choices and eating habits (43%). This does lead to the question, can Americans just exercise their way to better health?

So What?

A great deal of progress has been made with respect to food quality, safety, nutritional content and affordability. Moreover, food labeling provides Americans with information they need to make good decisions about their health. Yet, with the publicity surrounding several recent food recalls as well as growing concerns about the problem of obesity in America, it is very likely that issues related to the safety and overall health and nutritional value of our nations foods supply will come under increasing pressure from the media, special interest groups and local, state and federal government.

According to Chris McAllister, Senior Research Director, Public Affairs and Policy Research, Harris Interactive, The reality is that no one benefits when problems with our nations food supply emerges. Consumers deselect food products, food manufacturers and suppliers suffer from the backlash in the form of reduced sales and government feels the pressure to act.

Source: Harris Interactive