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
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
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.
study is at www.foodpolicyinstitute.org/news.asp?id=24.