Beef safety confidence remains strong
by Rick McCarty, Vice President, Issue Analysis & Strategy – NCBA
Over the past ten years, consumer confidence in the safety of both steaks/roasts and ground beef has steadily increased.
Since 2002, confidence in steaks and roasts has risen by 14 percentage points and confidence in ground beef has risen by 20 percentage points.
In addition, beef remains a food of low safety concern at the supermarket and at the restaurant. Beef industry efforts to improve product safety have paid a consumer confidence dividend.
The reduced instances of recalls and illnesses have not been lost on consumers and a quarter (23%) currently believes the number of people getting sick from E. coli in ground beef is decreasing. Only 19 percent (significantly down from previous years) think illnesses are increasing.
However, a majority of consumers still don’t know the proper way to determine doneness of a hamburger patty and 70 percent of consumers either don’t know the proper cooking temperature for ground beef or have the proper temp wrong.
Consumer confidence in the safety of steaks and roasts, and ground beef has been trending upward for the past 10 years (Figure 1). Since 2002, confidence in the safety of steaks/roasts has increased by 14 percentage points and confidence in ground beef by 20 percentage points. This increase in confidence is a testament to the work the beef industry has done at all levels to improve and promote the safety of the product. Consumers are more aware of the safety interventions employed by the industry and are seeing fewer recalls and illnesses. This translates to greater confidence. In an April 2012 survey of consumer perceptions of ground beef, those consumers who said they were eating less ground beef were asked why in an open ended question. In response, not a single consumer mentioned recalls, E. coli or other safety issues.
As part of the 10th Anniversary Beef Industry Safety Summit held in March, a checkoff-funded consumer study was conducted to assess current consumer perceptions of beef safety. The study was conducted as an online survey of 1,010 adult beef eaters by IPSOS Public Affairs in mid-January. Almost a third (31%) of respondents eat beef 3 or more times/week, about half (49%) eat beef 1-2 times a week and 20 percent eat beef less than once a week.
Greater trust in supermarket foods
As previous studies have found, American consumers tend to give higher safety grades for supermarket foods than for food at restaurants with 90 percent grading A or B for supermarket food compared to 78 percent A and B for restaurants (Figure 2). This is generally attributed to consumers feeling they are more ‘in control’ in the supermarket when they choose food as opposed to a restaurant setting where they “don’t know what’s going on in the kitchen.” This confidence from being in control carries over to food preparation as well. The survey showed that consumers thought they were more likely to become ill from a foodborne illness eating at a restaurant (65%) than at home (35%).
Confidence - at the meat case and in the restaurant
Beef has typically been a food of relatively low safety concern at the supermarket as well as at the restaurant. Although more than half (58%) of the experts at the Beef Safety Summit thought beef would be consumers’ biggest safety concern in the supermarket, only 10 percent of consumers said beef was their food of highest concern (Figure 3). In addition, none of the experts thought consumers would be most concerned about the safety of fish and seafood when, in reality, 48 percent cited fish as the highest concern food – the largest percentage of any of the foods rated.
Ground beef confidence… up to a point
Survey respondents were asked if they were confident in the safety of the ground beef they bought at their supermarkets and at the restaurants they go to. A significantly larger percentage (72%) said they were more confident in supermarket ground beef than ground beef served at restaurants (52%) – (Figure 4).
Those respondents who said they were confident in supermarket ground beef and restaurant ground beef were asked a series of follow-up questions that showed their confidence eroded quickly in certain circumstances related to consuming burgers that were a little rare (Figure 5 and 6).
Failing the True/False test
Survey respondents were given a series of statements and asked to note whether they believed they were true or false (Figure 7). The only decent score for respondents was on the statement that “Luck plays a big part in how likely it is someone will get food poisoning.” Seventy-one percent appropriately said this was false, perhaps another indication that consumers feel they have control over the risks of their food.
Perhaps the most concerning scores were the responses to the two questions about determining doneness of ground beef. More than half (53%) believe it is true that the proper way to determine doneness of a hamburger patty is to see if it is no longer pink inside. Similarly, more than a quarter (28%) said the proper cooking temperature for ground beef is 150°F. Also concerning is that close to half of respondents (42%) said they didn’t know the proper cooking temperature.
Feeling better about E. coli
The percentage of consumers who believe that illnesses from E. coli in ground beef are increasing has dropped and the percentage who believe they are decreasing has gone up over the past few years (Figure 8).
Consumer confidence in the safety of beef has been on a strong uptrend over the past ten years and remains strong. Beef is a fresh food at the supermarket about which consumers have low safety concerns; and this confidence in beef at the supermarket has been evident in consumer surveys for many years.
Ground beef typically has been more of a consumer safety concern than steak and roast, and, though it remains so, consumers do show increasing confidence in ground beef. Over the past 10 years, the percentage of consumers expressing confidence in ground beef safety has improved from 60 percent to 80 percent. In addition, 72 percent of consumers say they are confident in the ground beef they buy from their supermarket (18% are not sure). However, this confidence does not extend to consuming burgers that are a little rare.
There remain some concerns about consumer knowledge in preparing ground beef. More than half think doneness should be determined by looking at the inside of the patty to see if it is no longer pink. In addition, close to half (43%) of consumers don’t know the proper cooking temperature for ground beef and an additional 28 percent think the right temperature is 150°F.
All things considered, consumer perceptions of beef safety represent a good news story for the beef industry.