Consumer confidence in food safety drops

University of Minnesota researchers are using a first-of-its-kind survey to measure consumer sentiments on a weekly basis.

Following the recent salmonella outbreak in peanut butter, fewer than one in four consumers think the United StateâÄôs food supply is safer now than it was a year ago, according to data from a first-of-its-kind survey being conducted by the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Food Industry Center. Only 22.5 percent of consumers surveyed at the beginning of February said they felt the countryâÄôs food supply was safer today than a year ago, a drop of more than 20 percent since the salmonella outbreak, which first entered the national spotlight in January and has killed nine and sickened more than 500 . Researchers at the center have been using their survey since May 2008. It differs from others because it measures consumer confidence in food on a weekly basis rather than measuring a few times a year like other surveys, Jean Kinsey , co-director at the center, said. Kinsey said with continuous tracking, researchers can pick up emerging crises, like the peanut butter contamination or the 2008 tomato and jalapeno recall, and observe the long term effects the crises had on consumer confidence and industry sales. âÄúThe idea is, âÄòHow fast do sales go down?âÄôâÄù Kinsey said. âÄúâÄôHow long until they come back up?âÄô You can only do that with continuous surveying.âÄù Kinsey said other food-safety-confidence surveys only provide âÄúsnapshotsâÄù of consumer sentiment because they check a few times a year. Because the survey being used by the center monitors confidence on a weekly basis, it gives researchers more data to work with and allows them to follow confidence trends over a longer period of time. The relationship between food sales and consumer confidence is an aspect researchers are investigating because even limited outbreaks can have profound effects on the whole market, Dennis Degeneffe , a research fellow at the center, said. Even though the affected peanut butter was less than 1 percent of all the peanut butter manufactured in the United States, Degeneffe said the recall is impacting sales of peanut butter companies that werenâÄôt involved. âÄúOne day youâÄôre doing good business and the next day youâÄôre out of business without doing anything wrong,âÄù Degeneffe said. Researchers are also using the survey to better understand how media coverage of food safety events affects consumer confidence. Wes Harrison , a professor at Louisiana State UniversityâÄôs AgCenter who is helping develop the survey, said as expected, consumer confidence falls during intense media coverage of an event. What researchers are particularly interested in, he said, is how long it takes for consumer confidence to return to pre-crisis levels. âÄúThere is a lag of âĦ anywhere from three to four weeks where consumer confidence will drop off and then start to rebound,âÄù Harrison said. University senior Mallory Peterson said she thinks the media âÄúmay have overdone itâÄù in covering the salmonella outbreak, making some people âÄútoo worried about it.âÄù However, Peterson said itâÄôs better for the media to over-report the story as opposed to underreporting it. Even with low consumer confidence in food safety and intense media scrutiny of recent contaminations, Degeffe said itâÄôs important for consumers to keep in mind that the industry as a whole is safe. âÄúThe truth of the matter is, we have the safest food supply in the world,âÄù he said, âÄúand itâÄôs probably getting better with technology.âÄù