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K-State expert explains psychology of consumer food safety attitudes

By Levi Wolters


Sean FoxJohn A. (Sean) Fox, pictured at left, has seen these types of things before. He's heard the threats and the scares. They always seem to be present in one form or another.

In 1993, an E. coli breakout in Washington, which killed four people, shook Americans. Ten years later, the United States' first case of mad cow disease was discovered, momentarily stunning the U.S. beef market.

In the years following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, experts have warned of the threats of bioterrorism and the possibility of contamination to the nation's food supply by way of terrorism.

No matter the case, Fox, interim department head and professor of agricultural economics at Kansas State University, has noticed one common theme following the incidents: Consumers, whether of fast food, beef or anything else, always seem to recover from the incidents and threats.

"We're never going to make foods sterile," Fox said. "That's never going to be the case -- we can't even make hospital operating rooms sterile; people get infected in those. Consumers, for the most part, have accepted that that's the reality and they move on."

The case of mad cow disease did put a scare into citizens, Fox said, as demand for beef fell in the first few days after the news reports. However within one to two months of the discovery, demand had rebounded. Fox said the immediate fear expressed by consumers was understandable, but because of the low threat the disease presented, it was short lived.

"If you hear about an airplane crashing today, does that make your flight any more or less safe tomorrow? No," Fox said. "I think that's a good analogy to make. If you look at it in that sense, the fears really weren't justified."

Fox said improved treatments and food safety are reasons why consumers are able to continue to shop for, prepare and eat foods with little to no worry.

In October 2001, the Food and Drug Administration adopted the food safety program known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point, for seafood and juice products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had already established the program for meat and poultry processing plants in 1998. The program uses seven principles to focus on preventing hazards that could cause food-borne illnesses by applying science-based controls.

Also, processes such as steam pasteurization, in which an entire beef carcass is sprayed with steam to kill bacteria, continue to be used to produce safer products for consumers, Fox said.

Fox is a proponent of food irradiation -- the process by which meat is exposed to radiation, such as X-rays or gamma rays. The radiation provides an extra protection against deadly bacteria, such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria, without changing the taste, texture, appearance or nutritional value of the meat.

Opponents of irradiation, who say the foods could potentially become radioactive or lose nutritional value, have tried to discourage consumers from purchasing irradiated foods. Fox said that not only are the opponents' claims about the irradiated foods false, consumers, when presented with the facts, are likely to pay the extra cost for the safer product.

"Consumers will certainly buy treated foods if they have the information about what the treatment is and what its purpose is," Fox said. "Irradiation is something it's very easy to scare consumers away from. But when consumers are given objective, science-based information about what irradiation is, about what the benefits of the process are, they will buy the irradiated food."

Fox can be reached at 785-532-4446 or seanfox@k-state.edu


Summer 2006