Food Safety from a Consumer Perspective: The Hartman Group Pulse Report

Posted: 16 Aug 2005

Date Written: 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.

- Consumers overwhelmingly show high concern and the greatest perceived lack of control when it comes to eating out in restaurants.

- With regard to shopping for food, consumers see the process as highly controllable by tactile judgments made about "safe food" based on appearance, smell and printed dates.

- Although consumers are very concerned about food safety in their homes, they do feel that they have a sense of control over aspects such as:

- Cleanliness of cooking surfaces, utensils and foods - Freshness and storage of foods - Food origins and ingredients - Personal hygiene

- Many of these "areas of control" within the home are also mentioned when consumers voice concerns about a lack of control over food safety when dining out in restaurants. In particular, and with regard to food safety in restaurants, consumers voiced the following concerns over:

- Employees and personal hygiene (young age of employees, use of hands) - Where food is prepared in a restaurant (in a back room vs. prepared visibly) - Origins of food (where does it come from?) - The general cleanliness of the kitchen and restaurant overall - The freshness of food (was it previously frozen or made from fresh ingredients?) - Additives in meals or drinks (what's in the milk shake?)

- Based on discussions with consumers, they are more likely to classify fast food restaurants as less safe to eat in than more "upscale" restaurants, based on overall perceptions of the establishment itself, employee age and hygiene, and the freshness of food ingredients.

- When asked to classify a set of food safety criteria that might be used when assessing their choice of fast food restaurants in our online surveys, consumers from all wellness segments of the world of wellness showed the greatest concerns for the cleanliness and appearance of restaurants, followed closely by the appearance of the food served and whether or not employees use gloves when handling food.

- In terms of food categories, consumers have the highest concern for food safety when it comes to fresh sources of animal protein, ranking these categories from most to least important: poultry, seafood, ground beef, pork, beef (other than ground beef), eggs and dairy products.

- Except for poultry, consumers exhibit increasing levels of concern for food safety in animal protein categories as one moves closer to the core of the world of wellness. In the case of poultry, mid-level wellness consumers exhibit more concern for food safety than core consumers: One explanation for this may lay in the overwhelming popularity of chicken as a recommended "healthy" protein alternative to red meat in many of the diet and weight management programs used by mid-level consumers.

- Below animal protein, fruits and vegetables are the next level of "fresh" foods that consumers show food safety concern for, with bagged leafy vegetables, fresh juice and berries garnering the greatest concern. As with many areas in the sphere of food safety, core consumers are consistently more concerned than mid-level and periphery wellness consumers in this food category.

- When asked what are the safest foods to purchase, consumers gave examples that included:

- Foods fresh from the farm ("food from farm stands") - Foods made at home ("home-made foods," "cooked foods") - Foods purchased in natural foods stores ("organic foods," "fresh foods") - Foods that are processed by canning or freezing

- When asked what criteria they use to decide when food is "not safe to buy" when shopping in a store, there were certain criteria that differ by wellness segment. Moving closer to the core of wellness, consumers are increasingly influenced to not purchase food in stores on the grounds of food safety because of perceptions about:

- The use of pesticides on foods - The use of growth hormones in foods - The use of antibiotics in foods - The use of artificial ingredients.

- There is a broad range of other criteria used to judge food as "not safe to buy" when shopping that do not differ by wellness segments. These criteria, which seem to be universally used by most consumers include, but are not limited to:

- Smell (of foods) - Expiration date - Condition of packaging - Color (of foods) - Bruises - Appearance and reputation of the store

- While consumers are concerned about many food safety topics, and will typically refer to topics at categorical levels ("bacteria" and "disease" vs. E. coli), when surveyed about specific foodborne illnesses, consumers are increasingly concerned moving toward the core of wellness about Salmonella, E. coli, mad cow/BSE, mold, hepatitis and getting cancer from food.

-In terms of concerns for food production techniques and ingredients, consumers are most concerned about the use of pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics and artificial ingredients. Specific ingredients, such as fat, salt and nitrates/nitrites in foods are also of concern, but to a lesser extent then the previously cited food production issues. Core consumers exhibit much greater concern than mid-level and periphery consumers about all of these issues.

Because this report examines survey results from 2004 and 2005, certain changes in perceptions about food safety occurred over time. These include: - All consumers expressed more concern in 2005 than in 2004 over various diseases, with core and mid-level consumers exhibiting increased concern for Salmonella, E. coli, mad cow disease and mold.

- Among periphery wellness consumers, there was a marked increase in 2005 in concern over the safety of most fresh proteins including dairy, ground beef, seafood, poultry and beef "other than ground beef." This same phenomenon was seen among periphery wellness consumer concerns over fresh fruits and vegetables, where from 2004 to 2005 there was much greater concern for the safety of fresh juices, berries, fruit other than berries, and fresh root vegetables. While core and mid-level consumers remained very concerned about food safety with regard to these food categories during 2004 and 2005, the changes in concern for periphery consumers may reflect a propensity to be more heavily influenced by media than other wellness consumers.

- In terms of where they feel in control of food safety, only core wellness consumers felt that they had less control over food safety when eating out and when shopping for food in 2005 vs. 2004: Part of the reason for core consumers attitudinally exhibiting a pronounced lack of control for food safety when dining out may have to do with higher than average standards and knowledge about what can determine the freshness or purity of a product.

- With regard to controversial food production methods such as the use of antibiotics, pesticides, artificial ingredients, growth hormones, and nitrites and nitrates, core wellness consumers were more concerned about these issues in 2004 than 2005, while periphery wellness consumers became more concerned about these issues in 2005. These changes over time within wellness segments may reflect the impact of the media, and the likelihood that core consumers would be aware of food safety issues earlier than periphery consumers would.

- Along with controversial food production methods, fat content is of concern as a food safety issue to all three wellness segments, and became more of a concern to core and periphery consumers in 2005 indicating that this topic has become a concern to consumers at both ends of the wellness spectrum.

- In terms of how consumers use food safety criteria when choosing fast food restaurants, core and mid-level consumers showed the greatest concerns for various criteria such as cleanliness, appearance and perceptions of food handling in 2004 (as opposed to 2005), very likely reflecting heightened media reports on mad cow/BSE and E. coli and an association that is commonly made among consumers between "fast food" and ground beef hamburgers. Periphery wellness consumers were largely unchanged in terms of their levels of concern for the same food safety criteria when choosing fast food restaurants in 2004 and 2005, reflecting what is likely to be a greater overall acceptance and use of fast food and less of a concern for mad cow disease (periphery consumers were more concerned about E. coli, salmonella and mold in 2005 vs. 2004 while core and mid-level consumers were more concerned about salmonella, E. coli and mad cow/BSE in 2005).

Keywords: Food Safety, Consumer, Mad Cow, Irradiation, Organic, Pesticides, Antibiotics

JEL Classification: I12, Q13, Q18

Suggested Citation

Hartman, Harvey H., Food Safety from a Consumer Perspective: The Hartman Group Pulse Report (Summer 2005). Available at SSRN:

Harvey H. Hartman (Contact Author)

The Hartman Group, Inc. ( email )

1621 114th Ave SE, Suite 105
Bellevue, WA 98004
United States

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