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Gallup Poll Numbers Show Waning Consumer Confidence In Government

Gallup does an annual survey of consumption habits and, as part of that survey, asks various questions related to food safety. Its latest results, based on surveys done July 12 — 15, offer some interesting commentary on the state of the industry almost a year after the spinach crisis.

Gallup finds the result worth highlighting that 62% of consumers say they have avoided buying certain food products within the past year due to food safety advisories or product recalls.

Yet this strikes us as not that revealing. Presumably consumers don’t buy things while they are subject to advisories not to buy them. We are more interested in the time period after the advisory is lifted or after the recall is over, what percentage of consumers still didn’t buy the product, etc. This survey is silent on that matter.

Gallup has been asking related questions each year since 1999, and the company warns that confidence in the federal government as a guarantor of food safety has dropped:

The percentage of Americans saying they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the federal government to ensure the safety of the food supply is currently 71%, significantly lower than the previous low of 76% recorded a year ago as well as the high point of 85% in 2004.

By and large, though, consumers still feel confident in the food they buy at grocery stores, with confidence dropping but still higher today than what the study found at its start:

At 82%, current confidence in the food available at grocery stores is on the low end of the range of 80% to 89% found since 1999. It was similarly low, at 80% and 81% from 1999-2001, but higher from July 2001 through December 2006.

Interestingly, although faith in the government is down and confidence in grocery store food is down from its recent highs, consumer confidence in the food from restaurants seems relatively unaffected by the events of last fall, including several outbreaks related to fast food restaurants:

At 73%, current confidence in the safety of restaurant food is in the middle of the range of 68% to 77% seen for this measure since 1999.

Gallup describes American’s attention to food-related news as “listening with one ear.” This category includes not only food safety announcements but also nutritional recommendations:

Given Americans’ self-reported attention to food-related news, Americans neither take the safety of the nation’s food supply for granted, nor are they losing sleep over it. Nearly two-thirds of the public indicates paying at least a fair amount of attention to “the food warnings and nutritional recommendations” in the news, but this includes only 28% paying “a lot” of attention.

This survey was done just prior to the news of Castleberry’s recall on canned meats and chilis, and consumers are paying less attention than they were in December of 2006 to both food warnings and nutritional recommendations. Gallup warns that this number may fluctuate due to short term news. We wish they wouldn’t conflate paying attention to food warnings with paying attention to nutritional recommendations:

Public attention to food warnings and recommendations has fluctuated over the years, possibly a reflection of the timing of the polls relative to food-related issues in the news. Current attention is a bit lower than a year ago and higher than two years ago, but similar to where it was in 1989.

By and large, the survey bodes well for the industry, indicating that most levels of confidence are in the normal range — the big advantage this Gallup Poll offers is that the pollster has years of baseline data to compare things. Most of the efforts to study consumer attitudes post-spinach crisis suffered from not having a baseline to compare against.

There is, however, one point in the survey — the decline in confidence in government to ensure the safety of the food supply — that is troubling. Look at the detailed answers to that question:

How much confidence do you have in the federal government to ensure the safety of the food supply in the U.S., would you say you have — a great deal, a fair amount, not much, or none at all?

  A great
A fair
at all
  % % % % %
2007 Jul 12-15 18 53 21 8 *
2006 Dec 8-10 22 60 15 3 *
2006 Jul 6-9 22 54 18 6 *
2005 Jul 7-10 19 61 15 5 *
2004 Jul 8-11 31 54 11 3 1
2002 Jul 9-11 19 58 16 6 1
2001 Jul 19-22 21 61 13 4 1
2001 Mar 26-28 25 54 17 3 1
1999 Sep 23-26 15 61 19 5 *
* Less than 0.5%

Note that the big change in this number comes about because of a large increase in the number of consumers who say they have no faith at all in the federal government’s ability to ensure the safety of the food supply and those that say they have “not much” faith. With 8% of the population saying they have no faith in the federal government and 21% saying they have “Not Much” faith, we have almost a third of the country more or less likely to dismiss claims of safety by the FDA and similar authorities.

In the last eight months, we picked up 9 percentage points in these categories. The survey doesn’t tell us, but this strikes us as more likely to have to do with reports out of China than produce, since the last survey was done after the spinach crisis.

Whatever the cause, it is very dangerous. Much of our strategy in the produce industry has been to rebuild regulatory confidence in our products so that regulators, like high priests, can give a blessing on the product and thus reassure consumers.

Yet we seem to be approaching a tipping point. If this number continues to increase, the FDA will not have the influence and credibility to reassure consumers. That will leave us very much on our own and will empower politicians to seize the lead by passing politically motivated, rather than scientifically valid, policies.

This number merits close watching on the next survey. We’ll let you know how it works out.

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