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Consumers More Wary About Food : Many Fear Chemical Hazards, Tampering, Survey Finds

May 14, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The vast majority of consumers believe chemical residues in food present a "serious health hazard," according to a recent supermarket trade association poll.

Seventy-six percent of those surveyed, in fact, said compounds such as pesticides and herbicides continue to pose a major threat to food supplies. An additional 20% believed the agricultural chemicals were "something of a hazard," while only 3% said the substances were no such problem.

Industry Overview

The responses were a part of "Trends 1987: Consumer Attitudes and the Supermarket," an industry overview presented by the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based retailers and wholesalers group.

Now in its 16th year of charting consumers' viewpoints and buying habits, the trends report also found widespread concern about other food safety issues as well.

For instance, 61% of those queried said they believed antibiotics and growth hormones in poultry and livestock feed are also a serious hazard. An additional 32% replied that the presence of these drug residues in animals is a less severe, but still worrisome, problem.

This is the first year the antibiotics question was raised by the survey's pollsters. The inclusion is timely considering government researchers have recently traced an outbreak of human illness to the often-illegal treatment of food animals with antibiotics.

Another relatively new question, about irradiation, was also included in the survey. Forty-three percent of the respondents believed the use of gamma rays on foods was a serious hazard--an increase from the 37% who answered similarly last year.

The technology, used to prevent potential infestation or contamination, was considered only somewhat dangerous by 29% of those questioned. A sizable block remain unfamiliar with the process, reflected by the 20% who stated they were unsure whether irradiation was hazardous. Only 8% believed the process was safe.

"As in 1986, irradiation of food apparently continues to puzzle a large proportion of the shopping public," the trends report stated.

The institute's findings support those of similar studies, which have detected an increasing awareness of food safety recently. A separate survey of consumer attitudes by The Packer, a produce industry journal, found significant apprehension.

"Consumers indeed . . . registered very great concern about the presence of chemical residues on fresh produce," the publication said.

Furthermore, these growing fears seemed to be founded. U.S. Food and Drug Commissioner Frank E. Young has also said contamination of the nation's food supply has reached crisis proportions.

Shoppers Taking Precautions

On a similar front, the current institute report discovered that many shoppers were taking precautions against product tampering.

This year, the trends poll found that 86% of those surveyed said they usually check the packaging of food and personal products in grocery stores to make sure it is in good condition. Additionally, 76% said that if given a choice, they would prefer to purchase an item that is tamper-resistant.

"Overwhelming majorities of shoppers examine the packaging of food when making purchase decisions," the report said.

The heightened consumer awareness seems to be well placed.

Yet another Food Marketing Institute study in 1986 found that supermarkets throughout the country received more than 1,600 tampering threats and that 11% of these calls were for actual sabotage incidents. The problem is such that the group has initiated educational programs for store employees and the news media on how to responsibly deal with real and imaginary tampering episodes.

Other highlights of the poll:

--There has been a steady drop in the number of consumers who say they are very concerned about the nutritional content of foods. This year, 54% of those surveyed reported that nutrition played an important role in their diets, down from 64% in 1983. There have been continuing reports that the fitness fad may be ebbing and, as a result, the institute plans to fund special research on this topic in the coming months.

--At the same time, cooking habits are changing. Thirty-three percent of those questioned said they were doing less frying than three years ago, whereas 25% said they were microwaving food more frequently. Twenty-four percent claim to broil foods more often than in the past.

--Fifty-three percent of the respondents in households of two or more people said they always eat dinner together. "Even as life styles get more and more hectic, family dinner time has refused to fade away," said Tim Hammonds, institute senior vice president. "For many Americans, the dinner table seems to offer an island of family time in an ocean of hectic schedules and complex life styles."

The Opinion Research Corp. conducted the polling through random telephone interviews with more than 1,000 people nationwide earlier this year. The results were recently released in Chicago during the institute's annual convention.

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