Food-safety concerns changing shopping habits

by Bryan Salvage
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HOUSTON – Consumers’ awareness of food safety issues have influenced shopping habits, according to "Food Safety Certification: A Study of Food Safety in the U.S. Supply Chain" sponsored by DNV Business Assurance. Similar patterns are evident among food manufacturers, distributors and retailers – most of whom have, in the past five years, changed their business practices to adapt to concerns about the safety of food products.

Data was generated from online surveys of more than 400 consumers and 73 food companies under the management of Michigan State University.

"Nearly half of the consumers we surveyed expressed a change in shopping patterns because of food safety," said Dr. Chris Peterson, director of the Product Center at M.S.U. "It is interesting and important to note that higher price alone, is not a direct signal of safer food. Even brand name recognition is not the most powerful indicator of safety."

"Common sense tell us that people expect safe food, but we wanted to know more about how stakeholders, including consumers, react to different signals of quality and safety," said Kathy Wybourn, director of food safety solutions for DNV. "That's crucial if we, as an industry, are going to create unified solutions, and improve the delivery of safer products to the stores and onto the tables of consumers."

U.S. consumers want to see evidence on product labels, that the food they are buying has passed some kind of independent safety-certification process, the new study reveals. Slightly more than one-third of consumers indicate a willingness to pay a premium, upwards of 30% more, for products with a safety-certification label.

Although food-industry professionals also value third-party certification, they place a higher emphasis on traceability.

"As much as any other product in our modern lives, food comes from a very complex and interconnected supply chain," Mr. Peterson said. "When there is a Salmonella outbreak, or some other foodborne safety threat, the immediate priority is to trace the source of the problem. It's sort of the 9-1-1 mechanism of food safety. So we are not surprised that industry professionals place more emphasis on traceability, while consumers want to see certification on product labels. These are the market-based food safety processes. Consumers still see mandatory inspection by government as the most credible signal of food safety, with certification and traceability coming in a close second and third."

Other key findings of the survey include:

  • When it comes to sustainability, food suppliers and consumers believe recycling, social justice, green practices, economic viability and animal welfare are important, but the most important attribute is safer and healthier food.
  • Consumers have particular concern about domestic meat products, and in general, all products coming from international sources.
  • A significant number of food suppliers are moving to implement certification audits primarily as a risk-management tool; in general, food suppliers see a need for lower cost of implementation, and a more consolidated/harmonized set of standards for third-party, food safety certification.

The M.S.U. Product Center for Agriculture and Natural Resources was established in 2003 to support the development of high-value, consumer-responsive products and businesses in the food, agriculture and bioeconomy sectors.

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