Consumers fears over pesticides residues in food have reached record levels, according to national polling data published this week by a supermarket industry trade group.
The vast majority of those surveyed, or 82%, said that even minute amounts of farm chemicals pose a serious health hazard. The public concern over these compounds is at its highest level since the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) began polling consumers on the issue in 1984.
The results were released Monday at the group's annual convention here. The gathering drew more than 32,000 to McCormick Place for four days of exhibits and seminars that explored virtually every aspect of the nation's $239 billion supermarket industry.
Food safety, however, played a prominent role in the discussions, especially considering the heightened public awareness of contamination incidents, in general, and the controversy over pesticides, in particular.
For instance, only 3% of those polled on the pesticide residue question said that the chemicals were not a health threat. Another 13% said the compounds pose something of a problem to the food supply and 3% expressed no opinion on the matter.
First to Experience Loss
The findings are especially troubling to retailers because they are the first to experience financial losses whenever consumers stop purchasing products in the aftermath of contamination threats, sabotage or health scares.
"In today's climate, the use of chemicals in the food supply should be reduced whenever appropriate," said Tim Hammonds, FMI's senior vice president. "Our members are, after all, the purchasing agents for our consumers, and we must maintain (their) confidence."
The survey, conducted by Opinion Research Corp., charted consumer attitudes toward the neighborhood supermarket as well as measuring spending behavior, nutritional trends and cooking habits. This was the first time in 18 years, however, that FMI decided to make the food safety issue the centerpiece of the poll.
"Today, the term, 'forbidden fruit' has taken on new meaning," said Hammonds, in a presentation to the convention. "Food safety has been a very hot issue this year. . . . Something remarkable is going on."
Two particular incidents have had a surprising effect on public opinion, according to the FMI-commissioned survey. The first was a consumer group report, released Feb. 27, which claimed that children are especially vulnerable to pesticide residues in food. The study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, was highly critical of the continued use of Alar, a suspected carcinogen, on apples.
The second episode, on March 12, was the discovery that two Chilean grapes had been injected with cyanide.
A survey done before these two developments occurred found that 81% of those questioned said that they were completely or mostly confident that the "food in (the) supermarket is safe."
A month after the Chilean grape incident the number of respondents saying they were completely or mostly confident in supermarket food dropped to 67%. When repolled 10 days ago, the figure had risen slightly to 73%.
In releasing the comparison, FMI stated that "public confidence, once shaken, is slow to rebuild."
Less Convinced on Protection
Not only are the public's fears of potential chemical hazards on the rise, according to the poll results, but consumers also appear less convinced that federal and state agencies are adequately protecting the food supply.
Only 23% of those surveyed said that they rely upon the government to make sure that products are safe. This figure is down from last year when 29% reported that they looked to federal and state agencies to protect their food.
Forty-one percent reported that they depend upon themselves to make sure their purchases are safe. Fourteen percent said they relied upon manufactures to ensure a product's integrity, 10% look to the retailers and 8% count on consumer groups.
"When we asked who shoppers rely on to make sure their food is safe, we see that they still rely primarily on themselves to make informed choices," said Hammonds. "There is some erosion, however, in confidence in themselves and in the federal government, along with some erosion of faith in consumer organizations. As a result, they are putting more faith in retailers and manufacturers."
Grocers, though, are not comfortable in the position of food safety monitors as evidenced by numerous comments made during the convention's formal presentations. In fact, several speakers called upon the federal government to take an expanded role in regulating the food supply.
"Government food safety efforts . . . need to be improved," said Dean Werries, an Oklahoma City-based retailer who is also FMI's chairman. "It's clear that the government needs more resources for inspection. FMI, in tandem with other food industry groups, is urging Congress to allocate more funds for the three main agencies that oversee food: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, U.S Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency."
In the meantime, FMI also intends to play a greater role in the pesticide dialogue.
"We are saying to growers that the supermarkets are on the consumers' side of this issue," said Hammonds. "If the government says that a certain compound is a hazard then we want the growers to comply right away (by discontinuing its use)."
FMI is also proposing that the Bush Administration form a single agency to ensure food safety.
"Authority is divided among several agencies within the federal government on the food safety issue and they speak with many different voices," Hammonds said.
Other Results of the Survey
The survey also yielded several other important results.
--Thirty-eight percent of the sample said that they avoided certain foods "because they may be unsafe." Fifty-nine percent said they do not make any safety-driven purchases and another 3% had no opinion.
--Thirty-eight percent also reported that they are very concerned about the cholesterol content of foods. This figure increased from 22% of the survey in 1988. The 16 percentage point jump in a year's time was called "remarkable" by FMI's pollsters.
--Thirteen percent said that their diets "could be a lot healthier." Another 54% said that their eating patterns could be somewhat healthier while 24% said their food choices were "healthy enough." Only 9% of those queried said that their diet is "as healthy as it could be."
--The survey also detected changes in consumer shopping habits. Coupon usage, for instance, is at its lowest point since 1982, according to the poll. Only 35% of the consumers questioned said they use the cents-off slips "pretty much every time they shop." Eighteen percent reported that they redeemed coupons "fairly often" and 30% said their coupon usage was only occasional. Sixteen percent said they never used the money-saving devices.
--Supermarkets have not picked up much ground in the highly competitive takeout food business. Despite the widespread introduction of fully and partially prepared entrees at stores' meat and deli counters, only 12% of the survey reported buying carryout meals from supermarkets. Forty-one percent rely on fast food outlets, 33% patronize restaurants with takeout services and 7% do not use any such facility.
--Home-delivery of groceries seems to be on the verge of extinction. The practice was used frequently by only 2% of those surveyed, down from 10% as recently as 1986.
--The average amount of money spent for groceries currently stands at $74 a week, a modest increase from 1988's level of $71.
The profile of the supermarket has also changed, according to FMI. Food stores, on average, now carry 26,430 products. This figure is up a "phenomenal" 77% from 1984.
FMI's members operate about 17,000 retail outlets with a combined annual sales volume of $180 billion.
1988's level of $71.