Only one in five American consumers trust food companies

Posted by Daniel Palmer on 25th June 2009

A new study has revealed that less than 20 per cent of consumers trust food manufacturers and retailers to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy.

The research, by IBM, also discovered that 60 per cent of consumers remain concerned about the safety of food they purchase, and 63 per cent are knowledgeable about the content of the food they buy.

The survey of consumers from the 10 largest cities in the US shows that consumers are increasingly wary of the safety of food purchased at grocery stores, and their confidence in – and trust of – food retailers, manufacturers and grocers is declining.

The Debilitating Impact of Recalls

Highlighting the devastating impact a food recall can have on a brand, 83 per cent of respondents were able to name a food product that was recalled in the past two years due to contamination or other safety concerns. Nearly half of survey respondents – 46 per cent – named peanut butter, the staple of school lunches for children across the nation, as the most recognisable recall. America was the scene of a recent peanut butter contamination which sickened hundreds, and consumers are unlikely to forget recalls of such scale in a hurry.

Consumers are proving to be extra cautious in purchasing food products after a recall. Forty-nine per cent would be less likely to purchase a food product again of it was recalled due to contamination. 63 per cent of respondents confirmed they would not buy the food until the source of contamination had been found and addressed. Meanwhile, eight per cent of respondents said they would never purchase the food again, even after the source of contamination was found and addressed.

Changing consumer behaviours

Almost two-thirds (63%) of respondents report to have purposefully changed their grocery shopping behaviour in the past two years because they wanted better value for their money. And almost half changed shopping behaviour to access fresher foods (45 per cent) or better quality foods (43 per cent).

“Especially in today’s economy, if consumers are going to pay a little extra for a branded or organic product, they want to be assured that they’re paying for something different and better quality,” Guy Blissett, Consumer Products Leader at IBM Institute for Business Value, explained. “Across the board, consumers are demanding transparency and more information about the food they purchase to ensure their safety and that of their families. As the government, industry associations, retailers and manufacturers work through the operational issues associated with ensuring food safety, we can each become more aware and take greater responsibility for the food we purchase.”

Sourcing communication breakdown

The survey found that over the past two years, consumer appetite for information about food products increased. Around three-quarters of consumers want more information about the content of the food products they purchase and would like more information about its origin. In fact, 74 per cent claimed they were willing to dig deeper and seek more data about how the food products are grown, processed and manufactured. Despite industry efforts to keep consumers informed with more detailed product information, there’s still a significant gap between consumer expectations and what retailers/manufacturers are providing.

The survey also found that consumers are spending more time poring over food labels to know which ingredients were used, questioning supermarkets and product manufactures about product detail, paying closer attention to expiration dates, and doing more in depth background checks on specific food brands and their origin. This will have an even bigger impact as the younger, more Internet savvy generation of consumers evolve into being the primary purchasers of groceries, according to IBM.

“The ability to trace a contaminated product all the way back to the source of production is key to modernising our food industry,” Caroline Smith DeWaal, Director of food safety, Center for Science in the Public Interest, said recently. “It would also allow producers to more precisely identify the source of a problem in order to improve production practices and could help narrow the scope of recalls by more quickly identifying the specific plant or country of origin.”