F.M.I. finds consumer confidence in food safety down

by Keith Nunes
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CHICAGO – The constant stream of news related to food safety events, such as E. coli tainted spinach, peanut butter contaminated with Salmonella, and melamine in pet food and livestock feed has taken a toll on consumer confidence, according to the Food Marketing Institute’s U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends, 2007, which was released this week at the F.M.I. Show.

The number of consumers "completely" or "somewhat confident" in the safety of supermarket food declined from 82% in 2006 to 66% in 2007, the lowest point since 1989 when the issues of pesticides in apples and contaminated grapes were widely reported. The survey found consumer confidence in restaurant food to be even lower at 43%

"These findings send a strong message to the entire food industry," said Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the F.M.I. "All of us need to work together to be sure our consumers continue to receive the high quality, affordable food they have every right to expect."

The survey found food safety concerns caused 38% of consumers to stop purchasing certain foods in the past 12 months – up from 9% in 2006. Among those who stopped buying products, the foods most often mentioned were spinach (71%), lettuce (16%), bagged salad (9%) and beef (8%). The survey was conducted in January 2007, when the outbreak linked to spinach was still in the news and illnesses associated with other foods were starting to make headlines.

Mike Sansolo, senior vice-president of the F.M.I., said the association found the data so startling that it did a follow-up survey and received the same results.

"Consumers think everyone is letting them down," he said. "We have a food safety confidence problem that has to be addressed."

"You don’t see this kind of change in consumer polling," added Mr. Hammonds. "It is dramatic."

In response to the findings, the F.M.I. has formed a new food safety task force to make recommendations to the association regarding future food safety policy. One specific area the task force will focus on is food product recalls.

"I think our recall system is broken," said Mr. Hammonds. "It is not compatible from supplier to supplier. We are going to put together a conference with other food industry groups that will focus on how we can improve the recall process."

Energy costs affect purchasing patterns

High fuel and home-heating costs are driving other changes in shopping for 41% of consumers, according to the survey. For example, 69% of those surveyed said they are cooking more and eating out less; 56% purchase more private label products as opposed to national brands; 40% purchased fewer food items overall; and 21% purchase more prepared meals from grocery stores as opposed to going out.

In addition, the rising cost of gas may have contributed to how often consumer shop, according to the survey. For the first time since the F.M.I. began conducting the survey, consumers now shop for food fewer than two times per week. The average number of trips is now 1.9 per week, down from 2.1 in 2006.

Mr. Hammonds noted, however, that the national response to the rising cost of fuel is also problematic for the supermarket industry. "We are subsidizing ethanol in America and I believe it is a serious issue, because we are re-pricing food in America," he said. "You can’t find a crop that moves through the food industry more than corn. As it is pulled away from food manufacturing to ethanol production, it is affecting costs. It is also displacing other crops used to manufacture food products. This is an issue Congress has to address in the future."

Other key findings from the U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends, 2007 survey include:

• Shoppers spend an average of $93.20 per week per household. The cost ranges from $62.20 for one-person households; $83.20 for two people; $107.20 for three people; and $131.40 for five or more.

• More than six in ten consumers believe their diets could be healthier. One-fifth say that someone in their household is on a diet. Most dieters observe their own regimen (62%) while others are following Atkins (12%), South Beach (6%) or another low-carb diet (15%).

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