FDA announces plans for ‘real time’ consumer surveys during foodborne illness outbreaks

November 20, 2009

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has announced plans to conduct “real time” surveys of consumers’ knowledge, perceptions, and behavior during foodborne illness outbreaks and food recalls. Comments on this proposed collection of information must be submitted no later than Jan. 19, 2010.

During foodborne illness outbreaks and food recalls, the FDA attempts to provide consumers with the information they need to protect themselves. The FDA communications typically identify the implicated food, the symptoms of the foodborne illness at issue, any subpopulations at elevated risk of illness, and protective measures consumers can or should take. Existing data, however, suggest that many consumers ignore this information. For example, 41% of consumers say they have never looked for a recalled product in their home. Other consumers misunderstand the FDA communications, which can result in overreaction. For example, in a 2006 recall of fresh spinach, 22% of consumers believed the recall also applied to frozen spinach.

The FDA plans to conduct a web-based survey of consumers for up to five individual foodborne illness outbreaks or food recalls per year. Criteria for selecting a particular outbreak or recall for study will include a qualitative assessment of the importance of some or all of the following factors: (1) the geographic dispersion of the outbreak or recall; (2) the number of illnesses or deaths; (3) the relative familiarity of the food product implicated; (4) the complexity of consumer precautionary instructions; and (5) the presence of national media focus.

For each event (i.e., outbreak or recall), the FDA plans to field up to three “waves” of independent surveys, because the information environment often changes as new information emerges during an outbreak or recall. The FDA intends to conduct the surveys soon after the onset of an outbreak or recall and whenever the agency suspects that: (1) messages are not reaching consumers; (2) consumers do not understand the messages; and/or (3) consumers are not taking appropriate actions in response to messages.

The surveys will collect information on consumers’ “real time” knowledge, perceptions, beliefs, and self-reported behaviors. The FDA intends to ask consumers questions about the following topics: (1) the products subject to the outbreak or recall, (2) the implicated pathogens, (3) the food vehicle of the outbreak or recall, and (4) how consumers can protect themselves. The FDA will use the survey results to help adjust its communication messages and strategies, when needed.

Federal Register notice (pdf)