(Nov. 12, 1:31 p.m.) A report from the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association shows that 90% of consumers are concerned about the safety of fresh produce, with 32% of shoppers reporting they are very concerned or extremely concerned.
Shoppers who spent more money in the produce department were more likely to fall into the categories of very concerned or extremely concerned.
Amy Philpott, vice president of communications for United Fresh, said “Issues Scan” began as a consumer survey about food safety but evolved into what will be an annual report based on consumer polling.
“Once we started looking at food safety, we realized there were a whole host of issues to deal with,” Philpott said.
In addition to food safety, the report includes sections about environmental and social issues, product origin, consumer preferences for different forms of produce (whole, fresh-cut, frozen, canned, etc.) and consumer desire for product information.
Philpott said the study aimed to not only gauge consumer opinion about the various topics but to also analyze how those opinions affect purchasing decisions.
“We need to know what consumer perception is before we can begin addressing the issues,” she said.
Consumer interviews were conducted in March and United Fresh had planned to publish the report in the spring to coincide with its annual trade show. Philpott said the release was delayed so that additional interviews could be done after the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak that sickened more than 1,400 people from April through August.
Consumers were asked whether their concern about produce safety had increased or remained the same in the past year. Forty-six percent of shoppers queried in April said their concern had increased. In August the figure climbed to 54%.
During initial surveys 32% of shoppers said they had safety concerns about tomatoes, ranking the commodity third in the fruit category behind strawberries (37%) and grapes (33%) and ahead of cantaloupe (28%).
By August, 50% of shoppers said they were concerned about the safety of tomatoes.
Leafy greens, which also have been linked to outbreaks, topped the list of vegetables consumers had concerns about with salad mix (56%), lettuce (52%) and spinach (49%) ranking far ahead of mushrooms (30%) in April surveys.
Thirty-five percent of consumers said they would reduce purchases or stop buying a product completely even after a recall ended. Twenty percent said the risks of eating fresh produce outweighed its benefits.
The chapter on product origin also touched on consumer perceptions about food safety. Asked which country they have the most confidence in, 92% picked the U.S., with Canada a distant second at 42%.
In initial polling, China (56%) ranked as the country U.S. consumers had the least confidence in, while Mexico (46%) was next-to-last. However, after public health officials focused their attention on Mexico during the salmonella outbreak, Mexico (60%) and China (50%) flipped positions in August polling.
If price and quality are equal, 83% of consumers said they were more likely to buy U.S. product than imports. However, less than half of consumers (48%) said they look for country-of-origin labels.
Eighty three percent of shoppers also expressed a preference for locally grown product when price and quality were similar.
In both questions about sourcing, the No. 1 factor driving the decision was support for growers. Perceptions about freshness, quality, safety and environmental impact also were factors.
In the environmental chapter, 63% of shoppers expressed a preference for recycled or recyclable packaging. More than a third were concerned about food miles.
In the chapter about different types of produce, whole product scored higher marks than pre-packaged product in every category but convenience, where 82% of shoppers picked pre-packaged product. However, whole product was preferred by at least 75% of respondents for price, environmental concerns, freshness and health benefits. Nearly 70% thought whole product was safer.
The entire report is available for sale at http://www.unitedfresh.org. Cost is $125 for United Fresh members and $195 for nonmembers.
Philpott said interviews for the second annual report will be conducted during the first quarter of 2009. She said members with topic suggestions should contact senior vice president of member services Victoria Backer at (202) 303-3400.