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ARS Home » Northeast Area » Wyndmoor, Pennsylvania » Eastern Regional Research Center » Food Safety and Intervention Technologies Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #332967

Research Project: Bacterial Pathogens in Regulated Foods and Processing Technologies for Their Elimination

Location: Food Safety and Intervention Technologies Research

Title: Consumer perceptions of the safety of ready-to-eat foods in retail food establishments

item LEVINE, KATRINA - North Carolina State University
item YAVELAK, MARY - North Carolina State University
item Luchansky, John
item Porto-Fett, Anna
item CHAPMAN, BEN - North Carolina State University

Submitted to: Journal of Food Protection
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 2/28/2017
Publication Date: 6/1/2017
Citation: Levine, K., Yavelak, M., Luchansky, J.B., Porto Fett, A.C., Chapman, B. 2017. Consumer perceptions of the safety of ready-to-eat foods in retail food establishments. Journal of Food Protection. 80:1364-1377.

Interpretive Summary: Consumers often misperceive food safety risks and their perceptions may often conflict with scientific-based risk assessments. Retail food employees are trained to identify and minimize food safety hazards in grocery stores, but consumers likely lack this training and, as such, may have different perceptions of food safety within a retail setting. The goal of this study was to understand perceptions, food safety attitudes, and self-reported behaviors related to observed food safety hazards of consumers who shop at grocery stores. The findings, in fact, verified that misperceptions of food safety contributing factors exist among consumers. Our findings also demonstrated that consumers do successfully identify actual contributing factors, but are more likely to perceive a situation or product as unsafe if it appears “yucky”, regardless of whether or not there is an actual food safety risk. These findings will enable the retail food industry to better target interventions to consumers and food employees.

Technical Abstract: A nationally-representative survey was administered to 1041 participants who volunteered to evaluate selected risk perceptions and self-reported behaviors. Participants were shown 12 photographs taken at retail stores portraying cross-contamination, product and equipment temperatures, worker hygiene, and store sanitation practices; the photographs were also supplemented with commonly perceived food safety risks. Participants were then asked to specifically identify what they saw, to comment as to whether what they saw was safe or unsafe, and to articulate what actions they would take, if any, in response to these perceptions of risk. In addition to the survey, focus groups were subsequently assembled to validate and supplement survey findings with qualitative data. Survey respondents identified risk factors for 6 of 9 actual contributing factor photographs over 50% of the time: poor produce storage sanitation (86%, n=899), cross-contamination during meat slicing (72%, n=750), bare-hand contact of ready-to-eat (RTE) food in the deli case (67%, n=698), separation of raw and RTE food in the seafood case (63%, n=660), cross-contamination from serving utensils in the deli case (62%, n=644), and incorrect product storage temperature (51%, n=528). The majority (>60%) of participants also viewed photographs portraying non-contributing factor perceived risks (aka “yuck factor”) and were asked to report these as unsafe or very unsafe in terms of food safety. Using a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being very unsafe and 5 being very safe, there was a statistically significant difference between average risk perception scores for contributing (score of ca. 2.5) compared to yuck factor (score of ca. 2.0) photographs. The results of this study inform communication interventions for consumers and retail food safety professionals aimed at improving hazard identification.