More Americans want additional information on nutrition labels than two years ago while confidence in the safety of U.S. food is unchanged, according to a survey released today by an industry-backed research group.
Twenty-four percent of respondents said they would prefer more information on labels, including data on nutrition, ingredients and potential allergens and their side effects. That’s up from 18 percent in the International Food Information Council’s previous survey of consumer perceptions of food technology in 2010. Sixty-nine percent were very or somewhat confident in U.S. food safety, the same as two years ago.
“We see people wanting to know more about nutrition, and we saw a big jump in people who want to know more about food safety,” said Lindsey Loving, a senior director for the Washington-based group. Still, even when well-publicized food-safety scares occur, “the average consumer is still confident in the food supply,” she said.
A public backlash earlier this year over ammonia-treated beef scraps that consumer activists dubbed “pink slime” led to lost business for Beef Products Inc. and caused demand for ground beef to drop in March to the lowest level for that month in a decade. Transglutaminase, an enzyme that binds together different cuts of meat called “meat glue,” and insect extracts used for Starbucks Corp. food coloring have also been targeted by consumer campaigns.
Mad Cow Concerns
That, combined with the first U.S. mad-cow disease case since 2006, has led consumer groups to call for more regulation of the food supply. The percentage of label supporters in the survey who wanted more information on food safety jumped to 18 percent in 2012 from 2 percent in 2010, indicating a subset of the population that pays close attention to food is more demanding about its safety, Loving said.
“There is a food scare almost per week these days,” Gary Hirshberg, the chief executive officer of Stonyfield Farm Inc., said in a telephone interview, citing mad cow disease and pink slime. “All of this is confirming what we know, that we have to eat a lot more defensively, and read labels and know what’s in our food.”
Londonderry, New Hampshire-based Stonyfield Farms is the biggest maker of organic yogurt in the U.S.
For the survey released today, 750 consumers over the age of 18 were interviewed from March 7 to 19 by Cogent Research of Cambridge, Massachusetts, just as the first major media reports on pink slime were published. The poll, which has been conducted most years since 1997 to track consumer attitudes toward food, has a margin of error of 3.6 percentage points, the council said.
Consumer concerns about food are mounting, said Dana Hamson, an extension meat specialist at North Carolina State University. Technology has transformed food processing, yet the public is often unaware of how their food is made. Increased awareness has sparked concerns, he said in a telephone interview.
Many times, the reaction is “a draconian fear of the unknown,” said Hanson.
Education about food-safety is important to help consumers keep these threats in perspective, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today in an interview with Bloomberg Television. In the mad cow incident, livestock prices quickly recovered and trade faced little disruption because people understood that this case, the first instance of the disease in six years, didn’t post a threat to food safety, he said.
“We will reassure the consumer that American beef is a good buy,” he said.
Loving, with the International Food Information Council, said consumer worries about food safety tend to rise and fall with media reports, while the long-term trend has been toward acceptance of biotechnology in food and a greater importance placed on sustainable farming practices.
Almost three-quarters of those surveyed said they are aware of plant biotechnology, such as genetically modified seeds made by Monsanto Co. and DuPont Co. About 38 percent have favorable opinions of biotech, while 26 percent are neutral, 20 percent are unfavorable and 17 percent say they don’t know enough about the topic. In 2010, 32 percent had a favorable view.
On sustainability, 56 percent of respondents said they have heard or read something about sustainability in food production. That’s up from 50 percent two years ago and 41 percent in 2008.
The International Food Information Council and its affiliated foundation provide research and information on food issues. Its foundation board includes representatives from companies including Coca-Cola Co., General Mills Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc., along with faculty members from several universities.
Stephanie Armour in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org