From fresh produce to pet food, the media continually is reporting stories about food contamination and product recalls throughout the country. Yet despite the constant attention on the safety of the food supply, it is difficult to tell how much of an impact the news has on consumers and their food purchasing decisions.
With an almost constant barrage of food safety warnings, confidence in America’s food supply chain undoubtedly is shaken. In 2007, The Hartman Group found that 14% of consumers believed the food supply chain in America is safer compared to the previous year (Figure 1). The latest round of food safety issues will do nothing to improve consumer confidence.
For the consumer, despite the fact foodborne illnesses and product recalls due to Salmonella or E. coli have made news headlines of late, food safety has a much more personal scope to it. In a 2005 Hartman Group Pulse Report, "Food Safety from a Consumer Perspective," when asked to define what food safety means to them, consumers saw it as a term that designates an "absence of harm" derived from eating foods that are "free of" or "clean" of contaminants, bacteria or additives that might make themselves or their families sick. Other consumer definitions of food safety include:
• "Food safety means not getting sick from consuming foods."
• "Food safety means that food is clean, safe and healthy to eat."
• "Food safety is the promise that whatever we consume is free of any disease and will not make us sick."
When framing their definitions of food safety, consumers use five interrelated mindsets, with the word "proper" (or "properly") being used predominantly. The five food safety mindsets include:
• Process: Properly washed, prepared, cooked, grown, handled, stored, packaged and controlled foods
• Consumption: Eating foods that are clean, free of contaminants, fresh and healthy
• Diligence: Making sure food is properly stored, fresh, and clean
• Storage: Keeping foods clean, bacteria free, uncontaminated, fresh
• Peace of Mind: Knowledge that food has been handled, prepared, packaged, washed in a safe way and knowing what is in food.
The five mindsets reflect that for consumers, food safety is a tactile and active world made up of key processes that include vigilance, knowledge and the careful, physical "processing" of foods in order to safely consume them. Given that so many food products are now imported, "inspection" is a subject that may be added to the list.
Consumers want to know where a food product came from, who made it and exactly what it is made of. At the core of the health and wellness trend, where consumers focus on the composition of their food the closest, there is little tolerance for less than authentic. There is no room for compromised, adulterated, impure products. Knowing the source of products eases concerns.
The latest food safety scare is likely to prompt further ratcheting up of interest in "transparent" and "traceable" foods, since it won’t be the last time contaminated products enter the food supply. In the past, such fears served as catalysts to influence new behaviors.
Whereas Alar influenced some consumers to seek organics and the melamine in pet food scare had some influence in driving up sales of frozen and refrigerated "fresh" style pet foods (at least for the short-term), the current food safety event is a bit different.
Consumers want their tomatoes and jalapeños and just want to know when it will be safe to consume them again. They want to be assured that when the products return to grocers’ shelves and restaurant menus, that the food products are properly inspected, handled and safe to eat.
What does this mean for players in the food industry? It’s simple: Now would be a good time to become more transparent, give consumers more insight into how products are made and promulgate reassurances of careful, quality sourcing supported by facts.
Laurie Demeritt is president and chief operating officer of The Hartman Group, Inc., a consulting and consumer insights firm specializing in the analysis and interpretation of consumer lifestyles, and how the lifestyles affect the purchase and use today’s products and services in tomorrow’s marketplace. Ms. Demeritt may be reached at