Study suggests consumers don’t take food safety warnings seriously

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Published on 05/06/2009 02:04pm By Doug Ohlemeier


Despite numerous warnings about possible contaminated foods, many consumers think food recalls don’t apply to them.

A Rutgers University study of consumer behavior in food safety alerts shows many shoppers choose to ignore warnings and some even eat the recalled items.

Though a majority of people questioned say they pay attention to food recalls, the study by Rutgers, New Brunswick, N.J., showed that nearly half of them think the foods they buy are less likely to be subject to recall than the food other people buy.

Rutgers’ Food Policy Institute, a research unit of New Jersey’s agricultural experiment station, conducted a telephone survey of 1,100 consumers in August and September.

Given the amount of mass media coverage of outbreaks and warnings, one of the study’s authors said researchers were surprised to learn how many people told them recalls have little effect on their lives.

“The idea is that people are sort of overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the recalls,” said William Hallman, a Rutgers professor and psychologist. “There’s a lot of information out there. They hear the news and tell other people, but they don’t necessarily check their own homes. People think recalls are important but important for other people.”

Hallman, who has studied consumers’ perceptions of food issues for two decades, said he is puzzled why consumers react passively to food recalls. He said many told surveyors they figured if a food was for sale in a local supermarket, it would be safe to eat or made safe by washing or cooking.

A similar Rutgers study of last year’s Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak found consumers were confused by the messages that came from public health authorities. That study, released Jan. 29, showed though people pay attention to news about food warnings, they often don’t understand or disregard the alert’s specifics. People would say they heard the news about tomatoes and hot peppers but said they consumed them anyway, Hallman said.

While the Food and Drug Administration changed the way it handles outbreaks after the 2006 spinach crisis by not condemning an entire commodity, Hallman said officials still mishandled public warnings regarding tomatoes.

“With the tomato warning, they tried to say people could eat things on this list but not on this list,” he said. “But of course consumers didn’t know what was on either list.”

Consumers want more personalized and targeted information on how they should handle the affected foods they may have already purchased, the study showed. Hallman recommends food safety officials actively push such information rather than encouraging consumers to visit a Web site.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Washington, D.C.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association funded the study.

The study is at


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