Food safety concerns have been a major topic in the public conversation around COVID-19, alongside issues like the coronavirus and shopping, the coronavirus and the food supply, and the coronavirus and food deliveries. Our 2020 Food and Health Survey, which was fielded in mid-April, dug deeper into Americans’ perceptions of food safety during this unpredictable time. Here are some of the key findings.
Food safety concerns during COVID-19
Food safety issues have long been a topic of interest in the Food and Health Survey, and this year our questions took on additional meaning in the context of COVID-19. For several years running, we have asked survey takers, “What, in your opinion, are the top food safety issues today?” This year, we included a new answer option: “Food handling/food preparation related to risk of COVID-19,” stemming from consumer concerns and media coverage surrounding COVID-19 exposure risk related to food and its preparation. This new option rose to the top spot for consumer food safety concerns this year, with 24% of survey takers ranking it as their number-one issue. Another 18% said that it was one of their top three concerns, landing it as the second-most important overall issue, behind foodborne illness from bacteria (which 20% ranked as number one and 32% ranked as two or three). The high concern related to COVID-19 and food safety corresponded with a decline in concern over other food safety issues, including foodborne illness in bacteria, chemicals in food, carcinogens in foods and pesticides/pesticide residues on food. While it is clear that consumers are worried about COVID-19 in the context of food safety, we want to emphasize that there have been no cases of COVID-19 traced back to the food supply and that experts agree that the risk of encountering the virus on food packaging is extremely low.
In contrast, the food safety issues of least concern this year were antibiotics, the presence of allergens in food, bioengineered food/food that contains bioengineered ingredients or GMOs (all with 17% of survey takers ranking them in their top three issues). “Bioengineered” and “GMO” can be used interchangeably, but this year, with upcoming labeling changes related to bioengineered foods and ingredients, we made each of these terms a distinct option to gain additional insights on differences in perspectives on them. While bioengineered foods are being seen more and more in our food supply (with many of them being in the foods we eat and enjoy) and have notably contributed to feeding populations and providing nutrition while helping farmers save natural resources, some skepticism remains around the term “GMO.” However, these results show that when put into context, “bioengineered” and “GMO” are lower on the priority list for many people.
Food safety in the context of different food environments
At the time that the Food and Health Survey was being conducted, we were still in the midst of widespread lockdowns of non-essential businesses—including dine-in restaurants—and were adapting to the “new normal” of quarantine. Insights regarding perspectives on food safety concerns in different food environments were a critical piece of information gleaned from this survey. When asked about their concerns in the context of the pandemic, nearly half (48%) were at least somewhat concerned about eating food prepared outside the home. But when asked about preparing meals at home, fewer (30%) were concerned and many (45%) were not concerned at all. Research studies have shown that consumers perceive lower food safety risks when they feel that they’re in control, which may be reflected in these results.
Grocery shopping habits have also changed over the past few months due to the pandemic: Results from our May COVID-19 consumer survey showed that more consumers were ordering groceries online and taking fewer trips to the grocery store. In the Food and Health Survey, we saw that food safety while shopping for groceries was concerning for many—both online (42%) and in a store (36%). The sense of control related to food safety risk may also come into play here: more people were concerned about online grocery shopping, a situation in which someone else is selecting and handling their food. We also saw key differences regarding in-person shopping concerns between adults with children under age 18 and those without children: 43% of those with children were concerned about in-person grocery shopping, while only one-third (33%) of those without children were concerned.
Confidence in the safety of the food supply
Despite the overlying presence of the COVID-19 pandemic in our everyday lives, the survey shows that consumers are still confident in the national food supply. In fact, nearly seven in ten consumers (67%) are at least somewhat confident in the safety of the United States food supply, a number that has remained consistent from year to year. There were a few key demographic differences in consumer confidence, however: those ages 65 and older were more confident in the food supply (72%) compared with people under the age of 35 (56%), and people with a spouse or partner also reported higher levels of confidence (72%) compared with those who were single (59%).
The results of this year’s Food and Health Survey capture the significant impact of concerns over COVID-19 on perceptions of food safety. And yet, despite all the changes that people have faced over the last few months related to how we shop and what we eat, we continue to see sustained confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply. Ongoing changes to the availability of dining away from home coupled with a continuation of cooking more at home mean that food safety should continue to be top-of-mind as we navigate feeding ourselves through this challenging time.
The 2020 Food and Health Survey was an online survey of 1,011 Americans ages 18 to 80. Fielding took place between April 8th and April 16th, 2020. The results were weighted by age, education, gender, race/ethnicity and region to ensure that they are reflective of the American population ages 18 to 80, as seen in the 2019 Current Population Survey. The survey was conducted by Greenwald & Associates, using Dynata’s consumer (formerly the Research Now) panel.
This article was written by Minh Duong, MS, IFIC’s 2020 Sylvia Rowe Fellow, and Ali Webster, PhD, RD.