Opinion: Consumers Losing Confidence In Food Safety

Dealing with the issue of food safety is much better in the abstract. I say that because I was putting the finishing touches on a six-part series on food safety — the final installment runs in this very issue — when the concept became very real for me and my family. I picked up the local newspaper one morning and saw a front page story about how several members of a nearby Boy Scout troop had become ill from eating hamburgers tainted with E. coli that had been packed at a northern California plant. Reading on, I found the hamburger was sold at two supermarket chains in the town where I live, one of them a huge discount supermarket where my wife sometimes shops. The newspaper had called the local outlet to see if they had sold the tainted beef. They, of course, denied comment. I, in turn, immediately became concerned.

I poked through our freezer, and sure enough, there was the beef. My stomach dropped. At my house, I’m Mr. Barbecue. Had Mr. Barbecue unwittingly poisoned his family? In writing the series, I’d learned that E. coli could sit in the intestines of its victims for days before manifesting itself, so my wife and kids could be at risk. I called the county Health Department to ask what to do, and the woman asked me what the newspaper had recommended. “What the newspaper had recommended? You are supposed to be the expert,” I thought. She said I needed to talk to the woman in charge of such matters, and transferred me to her voice mail. Not very satisfying. But I left a message, and the woman did indeed call back a day or two later. She eventually gave me the same information that I had tracked down online in the meantime, that the tainted meat had only been packed on a single day last year, and unless my package had that date, it was OK. I checked, and it was indeed OK. Whew, I could go back to being Mr. Barbecue with a clear conscience.

But it got me thinking. Why didn’t the spokesman for that grocery chain tell the newspaper that the bad meat was from a single day? He could have just checked out the meat company’s Web site, which is how I found the information. I talked to a buddy who does PR, and he said the guy was just doing what the lawyers tell him to do. My buddy, who by the way does PR for a big agricultural firm, says it frustrates him to no end when he gets called up by reporters, and he has a perfectly reasonable response, and has to tell them “no comment.” The story comes out and his company looks bad unnecessarily, but he has no choice.

Why Take Chances?

That lack of communication nearly led me to throw perfectly good beef away. Now I understand what was going through the minds of all those people a couple months back who unnecessarily threw pet food away. Better safe than sorry, is how the consumer views it. The spinach growers in this country found that out the hard way. In that case, of course, the FDA didn’t immediately have the date in question, so they recommended that everybody throw their spinach away. But consumers didn’t stop there.

A survey conducted earlier this year by the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) shows that 38% of Americans stopped buying certain foods in the past 12 months, up 9%. The most oft-mentioned products were spinach (71%), lettuce (16%), and bagged salad (9%). See a trend there? If there should be a food safety scare involving a certain fruit, consumers aren’t just going to stop buying that fruit, they’re going to stop buying lots of fruit.

The spinach/E. coli scare has had a lasting impact. The number of consumers who are at least somewhat confident in the safety of supermarket food has declined from 82% last year to 66%. That’s the lowest since 1989. According to FMI, the 1989 figure was so low because that survey was taken right after the Alar scare in apples. And that was baseless. Can you imagine if we have a real food safety problem in our industry? Please be careful. Trust me, things look a lot different at the other end of the food chain.

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