Widespread media coverage of food safety issues pushed nearly half of Americans to change their shopping habits last year — and the food industry is looking for ways to regain consumer confidence.
A survey of 1,000 American shoppers, conducted by Lloyd’s Register, a British company that helps its customers manage risk, showed that just over 46 percent changed their shopping habits in 2019 because of a food safety scare. The survey participants were not asked to elaborate on the specific scare.
“Consumer confidence is waning,” according to the November survey, with results released in February. “Clearly, questions need to be asked around the influence of negative media coverage and what can be done to alleviate buyers’ concerns.”
Food industry representatives said they were aware of the problem.
“Consumers expect their food to be safe, and they trust that their food is safe — until something happens,” said Hilary Thesmar, chief food and product safety officer and senior vice president of food safety at FMI, the Food Industry Association.
“When there is a food safety issue, that’s when we start to get consumers asking questions,” Thesmar said.
Last year, for example, several E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce grown in California and Arizona infected 167 people in 27 states. Fifteen people developed kidney failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
After each outbreak, lettuce was pulled from thousands of store shelves and restaurant kitchens across the country.
Ever since, topics of food safety and regaining consumer confidence have been front and center for the produce industry in those regions, said Scott Horsfall, chief executive director of California Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement. That is an industry group that sets food safety requirements for its members, who comprise roughly 90 percent of California growers.
“I’m a big believer in the best way to make consumers feel safe is to control outbreaks and make sure they don’t happen,” Horsfall said.
The group already has enacted stricter water quality requirements. And several industry groups and public universities are conducting studies to find holes in the current agricultural safety structure, Horsfall said.
“They won’t all result in earth-shattering changes,” Horsfall said. “We just want to make sure we stay on top of the latest research. We are as concerned about safety as anybody, and we’re just as frustrated.”
The romaine industry’s reaction to the outbreaks is in line with how FMI recommends the food industry handle safety issues.
“There aren’t any foods immune to food safety issues,” Thesmar said. “But, what we find is that customers return if it’s handled quickly, if it’s handled well, and if they are open and honest about it. What we always tell [companies] is to tell your customers everything.”
The Lloyd’s Register survey also included questions about plant-based alternatives to meat and concern about plastic waste.
Sixty-five percent of shoppers believe big companies are not doing enough to reduce plastic waste, according to the survey.
“Meat-free meat is booming, but it is not solely down to vegetarians or vegans,” the report said. “One-third of respondents said they ate meat-free meat as part of their main meal of the day.
“This is especially surprising when research shows that only 5 percent of the market identifies as vegetarian.”