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Consumer Attitudes and Behaviors Regarding Ready-to-Eat Foods

Susan Conley
Director, Food Safety Education
Food Safety and Inspection Service, USDA

Planning Food Safety Education...

  •  New & Emerging Scientific Data
  •  Consumer Behavior Research
  •  Social Marketing for Behavior Change
  •  Outreach and Partnerships

Sources of Consumer Information

  •  Quantitative -- Population Surveys
  •  Qualitative -- Focus Groups
  •  Anecdotal -- Meat and Poultry Hotline

“Changes in Consumer Knowledge, Behavior, and Confidence Since the 1996 PR/HACCP Final Rule”

  • Consumer’s knowledge and use of food safety practices is growing
  • They have increased knowledge about foodborne pathogens and risks
  • Have increased knowledge of at-risk population, but some knowledge gaps exist

Report Findings

  • They are more cautious when handling and preparing meat and poultry at home
  • They attribute behavior changes to information provided by the media
  • Consumers are confident in themselves and the food supply
  • Although knowledge and self-reported use of safe handling practices has increased, consumers still make mistakes when handling food

Consumer Awareness Increasing

  • Consumer Awareness of Listeria:
  • 1993 - 9%
  • 1998 - 14%
  • 2001 - 31%

Refrigerator Temperatures

  • 67% of consumers do not own a refrigerator thermometer (FSIS)
  • 60% do not know proper refrigerator temperature (ADA, ConAgra)
  • 29% have refrigerator air temperature higher than 40 degrees F; 7% are higher than 45 F (Utah State University)

Consumers Rely on Food Labels for Food Safety Information

  • In focus groups, consumers report using food labels for information
    • Confusion about use-by, sell-by and expiration dates
  • In 1999 Penn State study, 85% of respondents report regularly checking expiration dates on perishable foods

Consumer Handing -- Ready-to-Eat Foods*

  • How long do you usually keep cooked meats, such as roasts, stews in the refrigerator and still eat them?

    • 1-3 Days - 71%
    • 4-7 Days - 24%
    • 8-14 Days - 1%
    • More than 3 weeks - <1%
    • Other - 3%
  • How long do you usually keep opened packages of cold cuts in the refrigerator and then eat them?

    • 1-3 Days - 31%
    • 4-7 Days - 47%
    • 8-14 Days - 8%
    • More than 2-3 weeks - 2%
    • More than 3 weeks - <1%
    • Other - 10%
  • How long do you usually keep opened packages of hot dogs in the refrigerator and then eat them?

  • 1-3 Days - 34%
  • 4-7 Days - 34%
  • 8-14 Days - 6%
  • More than 2-3 weeks - 1%
  • More than 3 weeks - 1%
  • Keep in Freezer - 13%
  • Other - 12%
  • In the past 12 months, did you eat any hot dogs without further cooking, that is, straight from the package?

    • Yes - 15%
    • No - 84%
    • Don’t know/Refused - <1%

    *2001 FDA/FSIS Food Safety Survey

Consumer Handing -- Ready-to-Eat Foods*

  • Consumers keep soft cheeses longer than they keep meats; 36% do not buy high risk cheeses
  • 69% keep deli salads in the refrigerator 3 days or less; 24% use them within 4-7 days

Calls to USDA’s Meat and Poultry Hotline about Listeria

  • Calls about Listeria have increased 245% in 2002
    • 167 calls specifically about Listeria
    • 1,308 calls about products recalled with Lm
  •  Callers ask general questions about risk factors and illness symptoms
  •  Ask about actions to take if a product is recalled
  •  Ask if cooking will destroy Listeria and about safety of lunchmeat and hot dogs
  •  Pregnant women ask about risks and what products to avoid
  • Calls from health professionals, caregivers and dietitians increasing

Focus Groups With Pregnant Women

  • Objectives:
    • Test and refine existing FSIS food safety messages on listeriosis
    • Identify effective delivery mechanisms
    • Obtain additional information on pregnant women’s food safety knowledge and behavior
  • Study Design
    • 8 focus groups in 4 locations
    • High school educated & college educated
    • Racial diversity
    • Prepare meals
    • Non-vegetarian
    • Eat luncheon meats, hot dogs, deli salads, or deli spreads/pâtés

Focus Groups with Pregnant Women -- Key Findings

  • Confident in ability to handle food safely, but don’t always follow safe practices when cooking at home
    • Do not use a thermometer
    • Do not refrigerate leftovers immediately
  • Unfamiliar with Listeria monocytogenes
    • Also unfamiliar with Campylobacter
    • Aware of E. coli and Salmonella
  • Not aware that pregnant women are at high-risk for foodborne illness
  • Obstetrician (or other health care provider) does not provide food safety information
  • Have not made any food handling changes since becoming pregnant because they were careful before becoming pregnant

Consumption Patterns

  •  81% eat hot dogs during pregnancy
  •  95% eat luncheon meats
  •  Some report consuming risky foods
    • raw cookie dough
    • soft cheese
    • dishes with raw or undercooked eggs

Storage of Hot Dogs and Luncheon Meats

  • 80% store unopened packages of hot dogs in the refrigerator for two weeks or less
  • 88% store opened packages for 7 days or less

Preparation and storage of hot dogs and luncheon meats

  • Do not know to reheat hot dogs and luncheon meats and avoid certain cheeses and other foods
  • Don’t know to cover hot dogs when microwaving
  • Some do eat hot dogs cold
  • Do not observe recommended storage times for luncheon meats

Evaluation of FSIS Listeriosis Brochure

  • Liked the brochure, found it informative and easy to understand
  • Had specific suggestions for changes
  • Want a brochure especially for pregnant women -- with a very specific title

Pregnant women are likely to change behavior when they have the information!!!

Delivery Mechanisms for Listeria Education Materials

  • Best way to inform pregnant women is through their doctors!!!
  • Suggested dissemination through books, magazines and Web sites on prenatal care
  • Need to also increase awareness in general population

Key Recommendations

  •  Educate obstetricians and other health care providers to inform patients
  •  Revise current materials to be more direct about risks
  •  Disseminate information widely in channels specific to pregnant women and the public

Partnership Formed to Educate Pregnant Women

  • Federal Government -- FSIS, FDA, CDC
  • IFIC
  • The Partnership for Food Safety Education
  • Reaching out to ACOG

Listeria Facts for Pregnant Women

  • Tear-pads of 25 sheets for doctor’s offices
  • Over 220,000 pads distributed to date
  • Available in English and Spanish

Efforts underway to reach low-literacy consumers, the Hispanic population and other targeted audiences


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Food Safety and Inspection Service
Regulations and Directives Development Staff
Telephone:  202-720-5627
Fax:  202-690-0486

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Last modified: January 10, 2003