A new study by Michigan State University’s Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources tracks emerging concerns about food safety among consumers. For the study, “Food Safety Certification: A Study of Food Safety in the U.S. Supply Chain,” more than 400 consumers and 75 food companies were surveyed. DNV, a provider of food safety certification services, sponsored the study.
Getachew Abatekasse, a product market analyst at Michigan State, said the study, which has not yet been published, showed that consumers were both knowledgeable and concerned about food safety issues. Consumers’ trust levels in the information they received about food safety were highest when that information came from university researchers and educators; they were less trusting of information from food supply providers. Consumers also had greater confidence in food that had been certified to be safe than in uncertified foods. Abatekasse conducted the study for DNV.
“First, the consumer has really high concerns when it comes to the safety of food they buy day to day. Second, the consumer has an interest to see more certified food products coming through the supply chain,” said Abatekasse.
More than 30% of consumers responding to the survey were willing to pay a higher price for products with a safety certification. Their greatest areas of concern were meats and food products from international sources.
Food industry professionals such as manufacturers, distributors, and retailers showed similar attitudes in the survey, and many have changed their business practices to accommodate greater awareness of the risk of foodborne illness in the supply chain. One important difference, however, is that food industry professionals are concerned about traceability in an outbreak.
In recent years, foodborne illness and food recalls have become a regular part of the American news cycle, raising concern and awareness among consumers.
In August, Cargill Inc. recalled 8,500 pounds of ground beef due to possible contamination with E. coli 026 in connection with two E. coli illness cases in Maine and one in New York. Also in August, a nationwide recall of 380 million eggs was launched after thousands of people became ill with Salmonella. The outbreak was eventually traced to Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa.
The government and the industry in the future somehow need to consider the introduction of third-party certification programs within the supply chain.
—Getachew Abatekasse, Michigan State University
In addition, this year’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico raised concerns about the safety of shrimp harvested from the Gulf, even though no shrimp on the market have been found to be tainted and there have been no illnesses connected to the shrimp so far. Those concerns reflect attempts by consumers to gain control over and manage risks associated with food safety in a system that generally gives them few tools with which to do so.
According to a report issued by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), part of the National Academy of Sciences, Americans suffer more than 76 million cases of foodborne illness each year. Over 300,000 are hospitalized, and 5,000 die.
The IOM report is sharply critical of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) oversight of food safety, calling it overly reactive, and it appealed for a reform of the system that would include strategic planning, risk ranking, surveillance, and intervention. Complicating the problem is the fact that although the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture have quite a bit of authority to regulate, inspect, and certify the food supply in the U.S., the agencies are not funded enough to do a thorough job. Millions of farms, restaurants, and imported food shipments would need to be monitored to ensure the safety of the food supply.