The Hartman Group, Inc.

Summer 2005

The roots of this study lay in the events of 2003 and early 2004 when mad cow/BSE was first discovered in North America (first in Canada in December 2003 and then in the United States in January 2004). To gauge public reaction to the mad cow event and other concerns for food safety, The Hartman Group conducted two identical on-line Internet surveys: one in January 2004 and another in April 2005. Results from both surveys show that public concern for the safety of food, especially in animal proteins, remains high: As if in response to intense media coverage of mad cow/BSE, concern for the safety of ground beef remains very high among consumers, followed closely by concerns over the safety of seafood, poultry and other meats.

Overall, food safety is a broad topic that encompasses many areas of food production and consumption. From a consumer perspective, “food safety” is a term that connotes products that are clean, free of contaminants and properly produced. Consumer concern for food safety is high for many types of foodborne illnesses and also for a variety of food production techniques that are viewed as threats. Consumers feel the most control over food safety in their homes, and the least control for food safety when dining out. Despite the fact that food safety has a national scope, with headlines referring to threats to the food supply in the form of bioterrorism or to regional outbreaks of various foodborne illnesses, consumers appear mainly focused on a more personal process of protecting themselves and their families from harm and sickness due to the consumption of unsafe foods. In particular, our study finds that:

–¬†Food safety is not a fad, but appears to be a slowly upward-moving trend among consumers whereby they are topically, yet actively, vigilant and aware of food safety issues ranging from foodborne illnesses to various controversial food production and processing methods. In addition, consumers seem highly attuned to what they perceive to be “proper” methods of handling, storing and preparing foods in restaurants, supermarkets and at home.

– In the minds of consumers “food safety” is a term that designates an “absence of harm” derived from eating foods that are “free of” or “clean” of contaminants, bacteria, or additives that will make themselves or their families sick. In addition, consumers cite repeatedly that food safety means foods that are “properly” produced and processed.

– When describing food safety, consumers use categorical terms to describe foods that are free of bacteria, pesticides, chemicals, disease, additives or contaminants. Categorical terms are much more commonly used than specific disease terms (e.g., “mad cow”) or production terms (e.g. “irradiation”).

– From another viewpoint, some consumers view “food safety” as a term that describes foods that are “clean.” When we examined what words were used to classify food safety along with the word “clean,” the term “free of” appears frequently, as do the key words “fresh” and “healthy.” To a lesser extent, the operative word “prepared” occurs along with “clean,” as does the word “organic” indicating that in an archetypal world, food safety for some consumers means foods that are “clean, free of contaminants, fresh, healthy, prepared properly and organic.” This description of clean foods corresponds to a subtle undercurrent among some consumer advocacy groups and food marketers who are using the term “clean” to describe foods (especially organic foods) that are “free of industrial chemicals, additives, hormones, growth stimulants, antibiotics and other animal drugs.”

– When framing their definitions of food safety, consumers use five interrelated mindsets, with the word “proper” (or “properly”) being used predominantly. These 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

–¬†These five mindsets reflect that for consumers, food safety is a highly 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.

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