Food safety is an issue that never seems too far from our minds—whether it’s hearing about a new food recall, trying to keep our kitchens and food prep spaces clean, or learning how to shop and keep food safe during a pandemic, this important topic is something each of us is engaged with every day. To find out more about current attitudes and habits related to the safety of the food we eat, IFIC recently conducted a consumer survey of 1,000 U.S. adults. Here are some key takeaways:
Nearly half are concerned about food safety when preparing food at home; coronavirus exposure and food contamination are among the most common food safety worries. Forty-nine percent of survey takers said they were at least somewhat concerned about the safety of their food when preparing food at home (24% were very concerned; 25% were somewhat concerned), while 27% said they were not that concerned and 23% said they were not concerned at all. Men, African–American people and people under the age of 45 were more likely to be very concerned; while women, white people and people older than 65 were less likely to share that level of concern. Of those who indicated concern about food safety, coronavirus-related issues (such as exposure to the coronavirus, risk of COVID-19 infection and risk of transmission from food workers) and food contamination rose to the top. Other common concerns included those related to personal or family health, bacteria, and sanitation; as well as other factors like expiration dates, cooking food to “doneness,” cost, and the national food supply.
There is widespread concern about specific food–safety issues like contamination, safe cooking techniques and allergens. Nearly half of survey takers were very concerned about food becoming contaminated (46%), food poisoning or foodborne illness (45%), and meat being cooked to a safe internal temperature (45%). Thirty-nine percent said they were very concerned about the presence of allergens.
Washing hands and cleaning cutting boards are the top food–safety actions taken when making food. Nearly three in four (73%) said they wash their hands and 65% said they wash cutting boards when cooking or preparing food. However, only 49% said they use a different or freshly cleaned cutting board for each product (such as raw meat and produce). Fewer than one in three (32%) said they use a food thermometer to check the doneness of meat and poultry. There were widespread differences between gender, race and age in this question: men, African–American people and those under 45—the same groups that were more likely to be very concerned about food safety—were less likely to follow most of the food safety risk-minimizing actions.
There is a greater sense of control over food safety when eating food made at home compared with food made outside the home. Sixty-six percent said that they feel they can always control the safety of their food when eating food made at home. Just 17% said the same about foods prepared outside the home. Twenty-eight percent felt they could never control the safety of food made outside their home.
Nearly one in four tries to avoid certain ingredients in foods and beverages; sugar, salt, fat, meat and food additives are the most commonly avoided categories. Twenty-three percent of survey takers said they tried to avoid at least one ingredient when deciding what to eat and drink. When asked to elaborate on which ingredients they avoid, common answers included sugar, salt, fat (most often, saturated or trans fats), GMO foods and food additives like preservatives and artificial colors.
Concern over safety/long-term health effects is the primary reason why people avoid certain food ingredients; food allergies in the household is second-most common motive for ingredient avoidance. Over four in ten people (43%) who avoid at least one ingredient said they do so because of concerns about safety and/or long-term health effects. Twenty-three percent said they avoid ingredients because someone in their household has allergies and 21% are worried about the quality or purity of the ingredient, while 20% said they avoid certain ingredients due to being on a restrictive diet for medical reasons. One less common response: Just 7% said they avoid an ingredient because they don’t know why it’s used or aren’t familiar with its function.
Nearly one in four think that meat has become less safe since the COVID-19 pandemic began, although half report no change. Most survey takers believe that the food options provided in the survey have either become more safe or that their safety has not changed. However, 24% said they believe that meat has become less safe, the only food category with a net loss in perceptions of safety compared with perceptions before the pandemic. There seems to be more skepticism of food safety related to COVID-19 in younger people: Those under 45 were more likely to think that many food categories—packaged fruits and vegetables, frozen foods, dairy products, and plant protein sources, for example—had become less safe.
Most consumers agree that the food industry prioritizes many aspects of food safety. More than half of all survey takers agreed that food safety is a top priority for the food industry (60% at least somewhat agreed), that food companies clearly communicate information on the presence of allergens (58%), and that they’re transparent in communicating potential risks and/or sensitive ingredients to consumers (51%). By way of comparison, far fewer disagreed with these statements (ranging from 11–18% of survey takers).
One thousand interviews were conducted among adults ages 18+ from July 10th–13th, 2020, and were weighted to ensure proportional results. The margin of error was ±3.1% at the 95% confidence level.