Americans have less confidence in the quality and safety of their food supply than they had in years, according to a survey by the International Food Information Council (IFIC). In the wake of news reports on mad cow disease, pink slime and meat glue, today's consumers are seriously worried about meat products and also, albeit to a lesser extent, about fish and produce.
"Government officials have said for years that the U.S. has the safest food supply in the world. But recent events aren't doing much to inspire confidence in that mantra," said April Fulton, a health and food editor for National Public Radio (NPR).
More than 60 percent of those interviewed in the survey expressed concerns about contamination of the food supply in general. More than 50 percent worried about meat, 25 percent about seafood (a number that increased sharply after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico) and 23 percent fret about produce, according to the report titled "Food & Health Survey: Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Safety, Nutrition & Health," which is commissioned annually by IFIC.
"In 2011 Americans [were] evaluating their food choices with a more critical eye, taking into consideration where their food comes from, how it was produced, its safety and reliability, food's overall healthfulness and its cost," it says in the report.
Still, overall eating habits have not changed dramatically compared to years past. Americans continue to consume about 63 pounds of beef per person per year. What has increased is price-consciousness. According to the report: "As the U.S. economy sputters, more Americans report that the price of food is a significant factor in how they are making food purchasing decisions."
In addition, 79 percent of respondents said that keeping costs down influences their buying decisions the most, a 15 percent increase from 2006. The same goes for orders from restaurant menus.
However, there is clearly a trend toward greater interest in food quality. According to the report:
"Consumers are receiving more information than ever about food, health, nutrition and food safety. Decision-making processes and beliefs about food and food safety environments have changed significantly with the release of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and new food safety legislation."
About half of Americans believe their diet is healthy or somewhat healthy despite of the fact that two-thirds of the population are overweight and a third is obese. Less then 10 percent can accurately estimate the amount of calories they consume in a day. More than half have no idea how many calories they burn due to physical activity. Although more people have heard of the USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans or MyPlate, 95 percent could not name a single initiative or campaign for healthy living such as Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" program.
In terms of food safety, more than 60 percent of Americans think that foods produced in the U.S. are safer than imported ones. But that trust is limited nowadays. According to a survey conducted by Consumers Union, a non-profit advocacy group and publisher of "Consumer Reports," 80 percent of respondents agreed that Congress should grant the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) greater powers over food manufacturers to enforce recalls of unsafe foods.
Based on data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 5,000 Americans die from food poisoning every year. Almost 80 million get sick and approximately 325,000 end up in the hospital. The costs for treating food-borne illnesses in the U.S. are more than $150 billion a year.
Timi Gustafson, R.D., is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner -- How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
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