Consumer Perceptions and Behaviors Impact Food Safety
Whether you sell food directly to consumers or sell ingredients to create food that is sold directly to consumers, knowing what consumers are thinking about food and food safety is critical to success. To help provide some perspectives we thought it would be helpful to take a look at the recently posted FDA results of its latest Food Safety and Nutrition Survey (FSANS) focused on consumer perceptions and behavior. While the report provides industry with some information on consumers' awareness, knowledge, understanding, and self-reported behaviors in food safety and nutrition, it is important to realize that the survey was conducted in 2019 – i.e., pre-COVID.
This may make little difference in some of the areas surveyed, but we would expect there could be some significant differences in findings, such as handwashing, if the survey were taken now or during the pandemic, as COVID-19 has impacted so many areas of consumer behavior. Even with the changes of the last year, however, there are some findings that prove instrumental for the food industry, particularly when one considers that workers also are consumers and could very well hold these same perspectives. Thus such behavior norms should be considered in the development of, and worker buy-in to, a facility’s Food Safety Culture.
Following are some of the survey’s key findings – and TAG’s take on the current relativity or impact:
- Only 15% of respondents thought it was “very common” for people to get food poisoning because of home food preparation, while 29% thought it to be so for food prepared in restaurants. As found in a recent study discussed in TAG’s March 3 Insights newsletter, there is some viability to this, as consumption of chicken prepared in restaurants was found to increase the risk of sporadic foodborne campylobacteriosis, but chicken prepared at home did not. However, the study focused only on campylobacter, and as stated in another study published in the Canadian Journal of Infectious Disease, “Although foodborne disease data collection systems often miss the mass of home-based outbreaks of sporadic infection, it is now accepted that many cases of foodborne illness occur as a result of improper food handling and preparation by consumers in their own kitchens.”
- High percentages thought that raw chicken (93%) and raw beef (66%) were “likely or highly likely” to have germs, while only 9% felt the same about raw vegetables and 6% about fruit. It is very likely that the percentages of those citing raw vegetables as being of concern has increased since 2019 due to the continuing issues with leafy greens contamination. But having the majority of consumers expecting raw meats to “have germs” is not necessarily a bad thing as it becomes an impetus for the thorough cooking and careful handling needed for food safety.
- To that end, it is a good sign that 62% of respondents said they own a food thermometer, and, of those, 85% use it when cooking whole chickens and 79% in beef, lamb or pork roasts. This does decrease, however, to 40% for chicken parts, 36% for burgers, 23% for egg dishes, and 20% for frozen meals. Consumers also tend to be most aware of the pathogens that are most often in the media related to outbreaks: Salmonella (97%) and E. coli (88%), with awareness significantly lower for Campylobacter (7%) and Vibrio (4%).
- But of all the survey results, we would expect that the beliefs and behaviors most likely to have changed over the last year would be that of handwashing. The 2019 survey found that practices varied depending on the occasion, with consumers more likely to wash hands with soap after touching raw meat (76%) than before preparing food (68%) or after cracking raw eggs (39%).
However, 90% of respondents to a 2020 American Cleaning Institute (ACI) survey said their handwashing habits had changed since the spread of COVID. Although the percentages of those washing their hands more than before declined between March (78%) and September (64%), the percent of those using hand sanitizer increased (46% in March; 62% in September). So even with the increase in handwashing during the pandemic, the declining percentages as the year went on show some indices of continued decline, potentially back to pre-COVID levels by the end of 2021.
What does all this mean to the food industry? An awareness of trends in consumer behaviors is a critical component of the industry’s food safety policies and practices. It is a case of the weakest link, as a food is only as safe as it is in the final reckoning – as it is put into the consumer’s mouth. And that consumer behavior, along with the cited perspective of only 15% of the study’s respondents believing home prep to have any contamination significance, can have a two-fold impact on the food chain:
- If the food was contaminated somewhere along the food chain – even if consumer cooking is intended as the kill step – at least one, if not all, of the establishments along that food chain is likely to be held liable.
- If the food arrived at a consumer’s home safe to eat, and is contaminated during home preparation, the consumer is still likely to blame the producer, and in today’s world of the instantaneous world-wide reach of social media, that can have significant impact on one’s brand and reputation.
Recognizing this, the industry has become increasingly cautious about relying on consumers to prepare uncooked dishes properly and cook them to the right temperature. This has led to changes with foods that look cooked, such as breaded chicken, and food that the package says should be cooked, such as some frozen vegetables, with many companies preparing foods in a ready-to-eat format even when sold as ready to cook. But it is critical that the food industry also continue to promote consumer communication around food safety and ensure that packaging instructions are complete and easy to understand.
I recommend you take a look at your products and how consumers are using them on a regular basis. Consumer behavior and what they believe to be ready to eat can have a big impact on risk. Additionally, ensuring that your Food Safety Culture strategy, communication, and leadership are well understood by workers helps to ensure they are a positive influence, carrying food safety perceptions and behaviors from the workplace to the home.