New Research reveals Consumer Behavior during a Foodborne Illness Outbreak
In the spring of 2018 American consumers watched with concern as news of a nationwide e. Coli outbreak spread. The US Centers for Disease Control made their first announcement on April 13 stating that Romaine lettuce grown near Yuma, Arizona was causing illnesses. By the time the final update was issued on June 28th, CDC had linked almost 200 illnesses and 5 deaths to the outbreak.
Media Impacts on Consumer Awareness
The outbreak was widely covered in media channels and consumer awareness was high. Media monitoring has revealed that via traditional media there were over 20,000 stories covering the issue with a potential to reach over 20 billion people. On social media there were over 130,000 articles shared with a potential reach of 6 billion people.
Background on Consumer Research
The California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA) is a food safety program whose members are committed to growing and harvesting safe leafy greens. The LGMA wanted to learn more about the outbreak’s effect on consumer attitudes and purchase behavior and to test various messages that might impact consumer perceptions about leafy greens. So the LGMA hired Long Research Consultants to conduct a study among a panel of 1,000 consumers nationwide. The survey was in the field from June 1 to 4, just as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced increased cases linked to the romaine lettuce outbreak.
Research Results on Consumer Awareness
Forty-four percent of the participants were able to name romaine lettuce as the subject of the outbreak without being aided. And once prompted that an outbreak linked to Romaine had occurred, 78% of the panel said they had heard of it.
Specific knowledge of information was limited among all participants, but the lack of detail did not diminish the impact of the outbreak, and in fact may contribute to it. 43% of consumers said they stopped buying or eating Romaine because of the information they had received regarding the outbreak.
Majority of Consumers are Confident in the Safety of Leafy Greens
Findings from our study were not all negative. Despite the outbreak, overall confidence in the safety of leafy greens is strong and appears to have remained consistent with previous studies conducted in 2008. In the 2018 study, half of consumers rate their confidence in the safety of leafy greens highly. An additional 40 percent give a moderate rating, while only 7 percent gave a low confidence rating – even though the survey was done in the middle of the outbreak.
This positive attitude toward overall safety of leafy greens creates an environment in which consumers remain open to industry messaging. Confidence in the safety of leafy greens increases after hearing strong messages about the industry’s commitment to safety. Those saying they were highly confident in the safety of leafy greens after hearing the messages increased 15 percentage points, while those not confident dropped from 7 to 4 percent.
The study found that although consumers are reticent to purchase leafy greens associated with an outbreak, they still have a generally positive perception when it comes to the safety of leafy greens. Several messages were tested among consumers in the panel and many worked well at further increasing consumer confidence in leafy greens. The strongest of the messages focus on specific programs or actions such as: The Leafy Greens Food Safety Task Force created to investigate the cause of the outbreak; information on government oversight of the LGMA program; the description of the LGMA program itself; and an explanation of the LGMA food safety audits.
When looking at who consumers most trust to deliver messages about food safety, farmers continue to receive high numbers and confidence ratings. When asked who consumers have the most confidence in protecting food safety, farmers rank nearly equally with the USDA and the FDA. Furthermore, when asked how much confidence consumers have in the accuracy of information from various sources, farmers rank third after the CDC and FDA.
This study shows the impact an outbreak can have on consumption of leafy greens – and it therefor underscores just how important it is that everyone involved in growing, harvesting and marketing leafy greens do everything in their power to ensure the safety of their product.
On a more positive note, the study does suggest that factual information about the ways the leafy greens community works to keep greens safe can have a positive effect on consumer attitudes.