Food Scares Make Us Think but Not Act

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Paula O'Rourke always keeps peanut butter crackers in the car for her children to snack on. The Bethesda mother of three had just bought a new supply when she heard the product had been recalled because of a risk of salmonella poisoning. She felt obligated to throw away the $2 package, but, she says, "I had this moment where I thought, 'Come on. The chance of these crackers actually being trouble is so slim.' "

There has been a steady drumbeat of high-profile food safety scares in the past several years: spinach, ground beef, tomatoes (later exonerated), jalapeƱo peppers and now products traced to a Georgia peanut processor. But like O'Rourke, many Americans are not rushing to change the way they eat.

A 2007 Gallup poll reported that 62 percent of Americans said they avoided buying certain brands or types of food due to a food safety warning or recall in the previous 12 months. But only 28 percent of Americans reported paying "a lot" of attention to food safety and nutritional issues, about the same number as in 1989.

"People might make the connection for the short term," said Harry Balzer, vice president of NPD Group, a market research firm. "But your taste buds are very, very difficult to change."

There seems to be little connection between rising concerns and consumer eating habits. Regular E. coli scares boosted the percentage of adults who were very worried about the germ from 21 percent in 2002 to 32 percent in 2007. Meanwhile, the percentage planning to eat fewer hamburgers has hovered steadily around 30 percent. The same is true with regard to fears about mercury in seafood. The number of adults aware of and concerned about the problem jumped from 58 percent in 2003 to 69 percent in 2008, while the percentage who say they plan to eat less fish or avoid seafood entirely has remained between 20 percent and 22 percent.

Psychologists posit several theories about why the scares have so little impact on consumer behavior. One is that learned helplessness is in play. The modern distribution system is so complex and confusing that consumers might believe that taking action would be nearly impossible, says Lynn Kahle, a consumer psychologist at the University of Oregon.

The salmonella-tainted peanut products are a case in point. Few consumers, if any, had heard of the Peanut Corporation of America, the company responsible for the outbreak. Yet the Blakely, Ga.-based company sold its products to more than 70 name-brand firms that used them for foods including cookies, pet food, ice cream and cereal. "When you come to believe that you can't do anything to change things, your response is not to try," Kahle says.

Another reason the peanut scare might not prompt change may be that many consumers believe processed foods are safe. "Processed food has an antiseptic quality to it," says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "It feels far away from its origins, and that makes it feel safe." Foods from a well-known or beloved brand inspire even more trust, she said.

That's true for Washington resident John Buntin, a father of two. When his wife told him about the peanut products recall, he was not worried. "My words were something like, 'We only eat Skippy. If there's some problem with that, I'm sure they'll contact us.' My assumption was basically that some big corporation stands behind Skippy, and that it was the esoteric, artisanal producers you had to worry about."

Skippy and other name-brand peanut butter companies have not been affected. But some of the nation's biggest food manufacturers have recalled more than 100 products made with ingredients from the Peanut Corporation of America's Georgia plant. Those companies include McKee Foods, which makes Little Debbie snacks, and Kellogg.

For some consumers, food-safety alarms are enough to prompt them to eat differently. Years ago, Germantown resident Ellen Robin says, she would buy ground beef in bulk, but E. coli scares and reports of antibiotics and hormones in meat made her switch to organic meat and milk. Robin even seeks out organic condiments, such as ketchup, that don't contain high-fructose corn syrup, which according to two recent studies can contain mercury. "All these recalls, they do make you stop and think. You have to be more conscious," she says.

Although she is moving away from processed foods and those of indeterminable origin, Robin admits that changing habits takes time. She still buys instant oatmeal that contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil, a common source of trans fats, because it's a good way to get her daughter to eat whole grains. And though she tries to make soups from scratch, she pulled an instant one from her pantry this week because her daughter was at home sick, and Robin couldn't leave to buy ingredients.

Ultimately, the decision about whether to change food-buying behavior is an entirely personal one. Bethesda mother O'Rourke said she once tried to go organic after staying with a friend who didn't feed her children any processed foods. "I had this horrible wave of guilt that I was poisoning my children," she remembers. "It took one trip to the grocery store before I decided I wasn't paying twice as much for chicken. There are regulations, and I trust them."


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