Study: Change in Habits Due to Listeriosis Outbreak

CANADA - A majority of Canadians have changed their buying and consumption behaviour following the recall associated with listeria in ready-to-eat meats, according to a new survey by University of Guelph researchers.
calendar icon 5 December 2008
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"The listeriosis outbreak was not only associated with the death of 20 people and the illness of many others, but it also contributed to economic loss in the food industry," said Professsor John Cranfield of the Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics.

"But the impact of the recall on consumer confidence in the food system and food consumption decisions was largely unknown."

So Professsor Cranfield and his colleague Professor Spencer Henson used the Guelph Food Panel to survey consumers regarding their awareness, concerns and changes in consumption patterns following the outbreak.

"Before the food recall, consumers did not consider the potential risks of ready-to-eat meats to be significant," Professor Cranfield said.

Nearly everyone surveyed (96 per cent) knew about the recall and that it originated in Canada, and 92 per cent knew that listeria was the cause.

Following the outbreak and recall, the proportion of consumers who said they never consume ready-to-eat meats at home jumped from six to 39 per cent. The percentage of people who said they never consume ready-to-eat meat products in fast-food outlets or restaurants increased from nine to 56 per cent.

Other behaviour-related findings include:

  • 30 per cent have stopped buying ready-to-eat meats from Canada;
  • 27 per cent now eat less often at restaurants and fast-food outlets;
  • 52 per cent are paying more attention to food labels;
  • 32 per cent are cooking more food at home; and
  • 30 per cent are taking more time in food preparation.

Despite the changes in behaviour, however, most consumers remain confident in the safety of Canada's food system, the survey found. About 70 per cent of respondents said their perception of the safety of meat in general, of food products, and of food as a whole has not changed. In addition, 75 per cent said they consider ready-to-eat meats safe to eat.

"This suggests that consumers have not generalized the listeria food recall to their perception of food as a whole," Professsor Henson said.

Interestingly, although overall confidence in food safety in Canada remains high, consumers' trust in food-chain stakeholders to protect them from listeria is only moderate, the researchers found. Farmers were judged to have the greatest ability to ensure the safety of food, whereas restaurants, grocery stores and the food-service sector were deemed to have the least ability.

The researchers also found that prevailing concerns about food safety are a key factor in how consumers respond to food recalls. For example, 44 per cent of respondents who had previous concerns about food safety were worried about the recall, compared with 30 per cent of people who were previously not concerned.

The survey is the second to be produced as part of the Guelph Food Panel, the first large-scale panel of consumers dedicated to food research. Developed by Professsors Henson, Cranfield and post-doctoral researcher Oliver Masakure, it allows researchers to track accurately changes in Canadians' eating habits and measure consumer responses to issues such as food scares.

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