A. Elizabeth Sloan

Bioterrorism, bird flu, mad cow disease, food allergens, mercury in fish, acrylamide, and antibiotics—it’s ironic that despite the United States’ having the safest and most reliable food supply the world has ever known, the list of food safety issues continues to grow.

Although U.S. shopper food safety confidence slowly eroded to a low of 74% being very/mostly confident from 1996 to 2000, confidence rebounded to 81% in 2004 and 85% in 2005, according to the Food Marketing Institute (FMI). Only 11% of shoppers stopped buying a product because of safety concerns last year; meat was cited by 53%, seafood 13%, fruits/vegetables 12%, and prepared foods 4%.

Bacterial contamination, pesticide residues, product tampering, and bioterrorism were considered the most serious food safety risks by grocery shoppers in 2005, FMI reports. According to NPD G roup, mad cow disease has never been the No. 1 U.S. food safety issue—Salmonella and Escherichia coli have consistently remained the top two concerns.

According to Packaged Facts, 93% of consumers are aware of Salmonella, 89% E. coli, and 40% Listeria, and 85, 81, and 44% are extremely/very concerned about these bacteria, respectively. And 61% say they regularly take action to avoid Salmonella, 57% E. coli, and 25% Listeria.

Increasingly, consumers are recognizing and attempting to avoid potential sources of contamination—77% are extremely/very concerned about proper handling of restaurant meals; 77% salad bars, buffets, and cafeterias; 69% unclean restaurant grills; and 67% deli/bakery food preparation, according to Packaged Facts.

While 99% are aware of freshness dating on food packages, only 26% say that eating food past its use-by date and 21% past its sell-by date is a serious health risk, FMI reports.

Food safety concerns are closely linked with food avoidance behaviors, and they’re increasingly creating new high-margin food categories. Packaged Facts reports that 79% of consumers are extremely/very concerned about pesticide residues on produce, 69% hormones in meat/poultry, 69% mercury in fish, 67% antibiotics, 59% genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and 41% nitrates/nitrites, and 42, 38, 43, 35, 30, and 22% are actively trying to avoid these substances, respectively.

Meat/poultry/fish is the fastest-growing segment of the organic food market, projected by the Natural Marketing Institute to jump 15% to $12.5 billion in sales in 2006. Corn-fed, grainfed, farm-raised, antibiotic-free, free-range, and dolphin-safe were among the 10 most prominent restaurant menu claims for protein foods in 2005, according to Mintel’s Menu Insights Group.

Horizon Organic’s eggs come from cage-free, antibiotic/hormone-free hens fed 100% organic vegetarian feed. And Applegate Farms recently introduced antibiotic-, nitrite-, gluten-, and casein-free deli meats from antibiotic/hormone-free animals fed 100% vegetarian feed.

Food additives are also moving back onto the hot seat. Packaged Facts reports that 53% are extremely concerned about artificial sweeteners, 53% artificial fats, 51% preservatives, 44% food dyes/colorings, and 41% MSG, and 33, 39, 32, 24, and 27% are regularly trying to avoid these ingredients, respectively.

FMI reports that in 2005, foods produced by biotechnology were considered a serious health risk by only 22% of shoppers (down from 34% in 2004) and irradiated foods by 19% (down from 31%). In 2004, FMI questioned shoppers as to their likelihood of buying a deli product sprayed with Listeria monoctyogenes: 68% said they were less likely to buy it, and 19% more likely.

Packaged Facts reports that four out of ten consumers are trying to avoid milk-containing products, 17% shellfish, and 13% nuts. ACNielsen reports that no-/reduced-lactose products have enjoyed consistent yearly sales gains of 5–7% and that gluten-free sales had already reached $397 million in mass channels for the year ending 10/8/05. Wal-Mart and Whole Foods Markets have pursued gluten-free lines.

While three-quarters of shoppers (76%) are very/somewhat confident that enough is being done to protect them from exposure to BSE, 58% are only somewhat confident, according to FMI. It is comforting to know from an industry standpoint that despite the two known instances of BSE in the U .S., ACNielsen reports that volume sales for total Fresh Beef and Angus Beef more than doubled from 2001 to 2005.

Most important, 50% of nursing home, school, and other noncommercial foodservice operators and 52% of restaurants/food caterers invested in new food safety technology in 2004, according to Reed Research. And, according to Business Communications, the global market for food safety testing will reach $416 million by 2009, or about 40 million tests per year.

by A. Elizabeth Sloan,
Contributing Editor
President, Sloan Trends, Inc., Escondido, Calif.
[email protected]