Consumers are less confident than they were a year ago about the ability of meat and poultry packers to ensure food safety, in spite of major efforts to bolster testing and inspection of their products, according to the CMF&Z Marketing Communications' Eighth Annual Food Safety Survey.

The survey, which measures consumer attitudes on a wide range of food safety issues, indicates that about one-third (32 percent) of consumers believe packers are doing an excellent job of ensuring a safe food supply -- down from 38 percent a year ago. By comparison, farmers and supermarkets were rated as doing an excellent job of ensuring food safety by 67 percent and 62 percent of respondents, respectively.

"Consumer concerns about food safety appear to be incident driven," said Bill Brewer, CMF&Z vice president of public relations. "Widespread media coverage of food-borne illnesses caused by E. coli, salmonella and listeria often identify packing plants as sources of the pathogens. Packers and governmental agencies are often seen in reactive roles, which may influence consumer perception and consumption.

About one-third of consumers surveyed said packers are doing an excellent job of ensuring food safety -- down from 38 percent a year ago.

Irradiation gaining favor

The survey reveals some good news for processors and retailers considering irradiated foods. While consumer awareness of irradiation remains steady at 53 percent, consumer confidence in the technology has increased. Fifty-seven percent of respondents rated irradiation as a very effective tool for ensuring the safety of meat and poultry products, up 10 percent from 1999. Roughly two-thirds of those who were aware of irradiation also said they were at least "somewhat likely" to purchase irradiated foods. However, 62 percent said they would take action based on negative media stories regarding food irradiation.

"Awareness of food technologies appears to significantly impact consumer acceptance," said Brewer. "While consumers say they are willing to purchase irradiated foods, they will also take action if the technology is associated with a safety incident."

The survey also showed that consumers believe natural and organic products are the safest types of food, ranking above food bought at grocery stores or consumed in restaurants. More than two-thirds of respondents said so-called natural foods are "very safe," and 58 percent gave the same rating to organic foods. Only one-third felt that food eaten at full-service restaurants is safe.

The nationwide survey, conducted in May 2000, questioned 401 randomly selected consumers and 150 newspaper and magazine food editors on a variety of food safety issues. CMF&Z has offices in Des Moines, Indianapolis and Chicago.