Frozen foods fingered

by Josh Sosland
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SAVANNAH, GA. — Consumers believe frozen and prepared foods are principal contributors to rising U.S. obesity rates, according to a recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive.

Asked, "How much does each of the following food categories (processed foods, grains, meat, canned foods, dairy, poultry, fruit, vegetables or fish) contribute to obesity?" 57% of respondents said frozen/prepared foods contribute "a lot."

Results of the survey were presented Sept. 29 at the annual meeting of the North American Millers’ Association, a trade association representing the wheat, corn, oat and rye milling industry. The survey, "Food Consumerism 2007: Public Opinion, Consumer Preferences and the Future of the Food Industry," was commissioned by the NAMA but contained insights touching on the entire food processing industry.

The survey was presented by Humphrey Taylor, chairman of The Harris Poll, Harris Interactive.

A large percentage of the survey results covered in the presentation was based on more than 2,392 on-line survey responses gathered by Harris Interactive Sept. 11-17. Respondents were adults above the age of 18. Additional topics addressed by Mr. Taylor were based on earlier work done by Harris.

Among the other choices for foods that contribute to obesity, grains (cereal, bread, pasta) ranked second, at 30%; followed by beef, 28%; canned foods, 28%; dairy (milk, yogurt, cheese), 21%; poultry, 6%; fruit, 2%; vegetables, 1%; and fish, 1%. Desserts, snacks and beverages (other than milk) were not included in the question.

Touching on a familiar theme, Mr. Taylor said the trend toward greater obesity in the United States has shown no signs of abating.

"Americans are the fattest people on earth and getting fatter every year," he said. "The percentage of adults older than 25 who are obese has climbed from only 15% in 1983-85 to 37% in 2006-07."

While the "fattest people on earth" designation may be accurate, Mr. Taylor noted several other countries are facing weight gain challenges. Countries with at least 15% of the population, aged 15 and above, with body mass index figures exceeding 30 included the United Kingdom, Hungary and Canada.

Focusing exclusively on foods in examining obesity questions is a mistake, Mr. Taylor said.

"About 21% of calories consumed by Americans above the age of two come from beverages, predominantly soft drinks and fruit drinks with added sugars," he said. He warned not only has the number of servings of these drinks risen in recent years. Quoting a New York Times story on the subject, he said, "Serving size has ballooned, as well, with some retail outlets offering 32 ounces and free refills."

The larger sizes are not limited to soft drinks, Mr. Taylor said. He showed images of a National Geographic article from August 2004, demonstrating the dramatic changes in serving sizes of popular treats, including a Burger King hamburger (202 calories in 1954 versus 310 calories in 2004), McDonald’s french fries (210 calories in 1955 versus 610 calories in 2004), a Hershey chocolate bar (297 calories in 1900 versus 1,000 calories in 2004) and movie popcorn (174 calories in the 1950s versus 1,700 calories in 2004).

Along similar lines, Mr. Taylor showed an image of a coupon for $1 off Hardee’s new Monster Thickburger, a 2/3-lb burger slathered with fixings and described by Hardee’s as a "monument to decadence."

Food safety update

In a discussion of food safety, Mr. Taylor said consumers generally believe food is as safe today as was the case five years ago. Categories that a significant number of respondents said were less safe than five years ago were beef, 24%; poultry, 24%; and vegetables, 22%. By contrast, only 5% of consumers thought cereal and bread are less safe than five years ago.

Asked in June 2007 about their recollection of six different food product recalls during the previous 12 months, large numbers only remembered the pet food recall due to animal illnesses and deaths, 63% of respondents; the bagged spinach recall due to an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak, 59%; and a peanut butter outbreak due to Salmonella, 49%. Fewer than 10% could recall a chicken breast recall due to suspected Listeria contamination, 9%; a corn chip recall due to undeclared ingredients, 2%; or a wafer snack bar recall due to possible contamination with small particles of metal, 2%.

Among those who recalled the various episodes, Mr. Taylor warned that a significant number recalled the brand name involved. For example, 42% of those who remembered the peanut butter incident were able to cite the Peter Pan brand.

Based on responses to a question designed to understand what actions consumers would take in response to a recall, he said serious damage to sales could result, though he warned that what people say they would do and what they actually do often do not match. For example, 21% said they would "avoid using any brand made by the manufacturer of the recalled product." Another 15% said if a brand they purchased were recalled, they would never buy that brand again. The largest percentage, 55%, said that if it was a brand they usually purchase, they would stop purchasing it temporarily, until the recalled brand was safe.

Mr. Taylor offered four pieces of advice for food manufacturers for successfully navigating a food safety crisis or recall:

1. Inoculation — having a strong brand before the crisis;

2. Preparation — establishing contingency plans in advance so response may be immediate;

3. Response — "tell the truth, tell it all and tell it fast"; a key to establishing credibility is admitting fallibility; and "don’t let attorneys call all the shots" because they are prone to advocating infallibility, a tack that may cause lasting damage; and

4. Recovery – rebuild trust and reputation.

The climate of biotechnology

The U.S. food industry handling of bioengineered foods has been considerably more successful than the experiences in other countries, Mr. Taylor said, citing data gathered both in 2004 and more recently.

In 2004, 52% of consumers said they had seen, read or heard "not much" or "nothing at all" about new bioengineered foods. Only 12% said they had heard "a lot." Also in 2004, the public was split about whether the benefits of developing and growing bioengineered plants and crops outweigh the risks, garnering 38% of responses, versus the risks outweighing the benefits, at 43%, with 19% unsure.

Asked in September 2007 whether, compared with currently available bread products, how likely they would be to buy bread baked from bioengineered ingredients, 38% said less likely, with 34% saying just as likely or more likely and 29% unsure. Greater consensus was indicated in the question of whether labeling of bioengineered foods should be mandatory, with 84% stating it should be required by the government.

Offering his own view of the climate for bioengineered foods in the United States, Mr. Taylor said the communication/public relations approach in the United States has been successful.

"It has never been much of an issue for most people," he said. By contrast, in certain developing countries, industry policies and communications "have been a disaster," he said.

Mr. Taylor advised the industry not to combat labeling of bioengineered foods. He noted the pharmaceutical industry battled fiercely and unsuccessfully in the 1980s against requirements for "patient package inserts" with prescription drugs, but that the inserts have not had any demonstrably negative effect on the pharmaceutical drug industry.

Environmental issues

In responses about the environment to questions posed in June, consumers indicated a strong interest in "green" shopping behavior, though Mr. Taylor suggested "they may not all practice what they preach."

For example, 61% said they were likely to purchase locally grown products and 55% said they bought products with recycled packaging content, as long as the price was within their budget. Strong responses also were recorded for purchasing high efficiency light bulbs, environmentally friendly cleaning products, in-season produce versus non-seasonal produce, rechargeable batteries and reusable shopping bags.

A significant degree of responsibility for protecting the environment was placed on the shoulders of food manufacturers. Asked who should have "the most responsibility in ensuring the long-term well-being of the environment" with regard to the food industry, respondents in July said the federal government, 29%; followed by food manufacturers, 25%; consumers, 19%; state and local governments, 17%; and supermarkets, 1%.

Value of organic food

While organic food buyers remain a small minority of the market, Mr. Taylor said growing numbers of consumers believe organic food offers value. Only 1% of consumers buy organic "all the time," Harris Interactive found in a September poll, and 6% purchase organic "most of the time."

Among characteristics of organic food believed true by consumers, 95% view the products as more expensive, 84% believe they are grown without pesticides, 79% believe organic foods are safer for the environment, 76% believe they are healthier and 39% believe they taste better.

Among the small percentage of shoppers who buy organic food all or most of the time, 62% said they shop in Whole Foods, 58% in specialty or gourmet markets, 88% in supermarkets, 53% in Wal-Mart, Kmart or other discount stores, and 26% from local convenience stores.

While 29% of those polled believe organic food is "a waste of money and is no better for you than conventional foods available in supermarkets," Mr. Taylor said 36% believe organic is worth the extra expense and another 36% are unsure.

The survey results affirmed demand for organic food is still growing. Asked how their organic purchases compared to last year, 6% said they increased a great deal, 26% increased somewhat, 59% stayed the same and only 4% decreased.

Finishing his survey with a question of who has the greatest responsibility with regard to ensuring that Americans eat better, the response overwhelmingly pointed to the individual, 75%; followed by food manufacturers, 12%; the government, 10%; and the employer and/or school, 1%.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 16, 2007, starting on Page 1. Click here to search that archive.

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