U.S consumers are more alarmed by the safety and cost of food than they are about the war in Iraq or global warming, and when it comes to quick-serves, patrons were less likely to grant chain restaurants the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the “privilege of operating with minimal government regulation,” according to preliminary results of a survey conducted by The Center for Food Integrity (CFI).
“We have never seen concerns at this level over the cost of food and the safety of food,” says Charlie Arnot, CEO of the Kansas City, Missouri-based organization that was established in 2007 to increase consumer trust and confidence throughout the U.S. food system.
Initial results of the Annual Consumer Trust Survey of more than 2,000 respondents were released in August. The survey was based on the concept of “social license” granted to restaurants, farmers/producers, grocery store,s and food companies and processors to operate with minimal formalized regulations while maintaining public trust to ensure food safety and sustainable operation. On a 0-to-10 scale with 10 representing “complete” social license, restaurants ranked 4.78 behind grocery stores (4.89) and farmers/producers (5.07), but ahead of food companies/processors (4.60).
Although no specific franchise brands were named in the preliminary findings, restaurants were broken down into four groups: fine-dining chain, locally-owned, casual dining chain, and quick-serve chain restaurants. Overall, the findings indicate that three of the four groups were granted some social license to ensure food safety. Quick-service chain restaurants were granted the least social license for food safety and sustainable operations, with just under half, 46 percent, receiving 0 to 3 ratings at means of 3.91 and 3.62, respectively.
Social license to ensure food safety in casual dining (4.25) and fine-dining chains (4.44) did not finish favorably either. For social license to ensure sustainable operation, casual and fine dining mean scores ranged from 4.05 to 4.41 respectively.
“Social license was granted less to quick-serves than any other,” Arnot says. “We want to figure out why and determine what level of trust and confidence is needed to achieve social license.”
On that same 0-to-10 scale, with 10 being of the utmost concern of respondents, the cost of food was 8.09 and safety of food was 7.03. Only the economy (8.25) and rising energy bills (8.37) ranked ahead of food costs, while rising healthcare expenses (7.73) and personal finances (7.51) were of greater concern than food safety.
Moreover, fewer than 20 percent of those surveyed strongly agreed that government agencies are doing a good job of ensuring food safety.
“Consumers are very concerned about food safety,” says Jan Wilson, president of Gestalt Inc., a St. Louis, Missouri-based market research firm that was hired by CFI to execute the survey. Governmental agencies responsible for ensuring the safety of the food supply are not being perceived very favorably.”
Arnot says complete survey findings will be released at CFI’s 2008 Food System Summit, which will be held October 8–9 at the Indianapolis Downtown Marriot.
Goals of the survey and summit, he says, are to gauge the level of concern consumers have about key life and current events issues; understand perceptions of confidence, competence, responsibility, trust, and willingness to comply; identify sources about the food industry used by consumers; and measure additional attitudes and beliefs about the U.S. food supply.
Citing leafy green and ground beef scares, which led to the largest meat recalls in U.S. history, Arnot says such breakdowns reverberate through the farm-to-fork food system.
“The number of incidents and the frequency, every single incident, adds a culmination effect of undermining the consumer confidence in the food system,” he says. “We are so intricately linked that it really doesn’t matter where the breakdown occurs. Everybody suffers.”
The summit features keynote speakers, Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of Wal-Mart’s Grocery Division, and Fedele Bauccio, chief executive officer and co-founder of Bon Appétit Management Co., a Palo Alto, California–based onsite-restaurant company that provides café and catering services to corporations, colleges and universities, and specialty venues with more than 400 locations in 28 states.
Other speakers include Dr. David Acheson, associate commissioner of foods for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Tamar Jacoby, president and CEO of ImmigrationWorks USA; Jocie Antonelli, manager of nutrition and safety for the University of Notre Dame; and Dr. Jason Clay, senior vice president of markets for World Wildlife Fund.
For more information on The Center for Food Integrity log on to www.foodintegrity.org.