CONSUMERS WILL ACCEPT IRRADIATED FOODS IF THEY UNDERSTAND THEM
by Linda L. Leake, Contributing Editor
It's a no-brainer, scientists and health care professionals contend. Extensive research shows that when irradiation is used as approved on foods, disease-causing organisms are reduced or eliminated, food does not become radioactive, dangerous substances do not materialize in the foods, and nutrition and taste are unchanged.
So what's the problem? Convincing consumers to embrace the above concepts, says Christine Bruhn, an Extension consumer food marketing specialist with the University of California-Davis.
"Irradiated foods can be a tough sell at first, but a variety of market research studies conducted over the last 15 years repeatedly show 80 to 90 percent of consumers will choose irradiated products over non-irradiated once they hear the facts," Bruhn emphasizes. "That's because irradiation offers qualities consumers value."
Irradiated ground beef, in particular, has garnered significant national attention and become widely available since USDA approved a red meat irradiation protocol in late 1999 and was first introduced commercially in May 2000.
As of mid-April 2003, according to the Minnesota Beef Council, irradiated ground beef is available in more than 6,500 U.S. retail stores and an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 restaurants, not to mention via home delivery.
But what do consumers really know about irradiated ground beef? How do they feel about it? Are they willing to buy it?
RESTAURANT PATRONS RESPOND
International Dairy Queen (IDQ), Edina, Minn., has been surveying its customers since it added irradiated hamburgers to menus in February 2002. As of late 2002, 4,470 surveys were tallied, says Dean Peters, IDQ's director of communications.
"When asked if they had ever heard of the process of electronic irradiation, 36.87 percent of the respondents said 'No' and 63.13 percent said 'Yes,'" Peters says. "When asked if they would be willing to pay more for a hamburger that has been processed with technology to ensure safety, 50.49 percent said 'No' and 49.51 percent said 'Yes.'"
When rating satisfaction with an irradiated hamburger purchased the same day of the survey, patrons' responses averaged 4.07, with "1" being "poor" and "5" being "outstanding." These scores took appearance, freshness, juiciness and overall satisfaction into consideration.
"For our company, the most significant information gleaned from the survey was overwhelming positive feedback about their willingness to return to the restaurant," Peters says. "To the question that stated 'Now that you know we sell irradiated hamburgers at this location, what will be your decision?', more than 97 percent said they would return at the same rate, a somewhat greater rate or a significantly greater rate," Peters elaborates.
A spring 2002 study by Texas A&M University (TAMU) investigated some Texas consumers' knowledge and acceptance of food irradiation and the effects of information about food irradiation on consumer acceptance and willingness to pay for irradiated ground beef.
"Our results suggest that information about the nature and benefits of irradiation is a major factor affecting consumers' perception and attitudes towards irradiated foods," says Rudy Nayga, a TAMU agricultural economist who led the study.
"This finding reflects the importance of educating the public about the hazards of foodborne pathogens and the potential benefits of consuming irradiated foods," he says.
"Information plays an important role in consumer buying decisions, and many people are willing to purchase irradiated foods, particularly if the purpose of irradiation is clearly indicated," Nayga continues.
Before the presentation of any information in the TAMU study, about half of the respondents indicated a willingness to purchase irradiated ground beef. After receiving information about food irradiation, 88.5 percent of the respondents were willing purchasers.
Nayga and his colleagues also examined the effect of consumer demographics on the probability that a consumer would buy irradiated ground beef after receiving information about the nature and benefits of food irradiation.
"Results generally indicate that females are less likely to buy irradiated ground beef than males," Nayga reports. "White respondents are more likely to buy irradiated ground beef than black respondents. And married respondents are more likely to make the purchase than unmarried respondents."
NEGATIVE INFORMATION DOMINATES
When consumers receive both positive and negative information about food irradiation, negative information tends to dominate, according to research conducted by Sean Fox, agricultural economist for Kansas State University (KSU). "Providing the public with accurate information about irradiation clearly has a very significant effect on the level of acceptance of the process," Fox relates, "but we also found that consumers react differently to the same information when it comes from different sources. Sixty-six percent favored irradiation when an information brochure they received was attributed to an industry source, while 67 percent favored it when the same brochure came from the USDA. When consumers received no brochure, only 32 percent favored irradiation."
In July 2002, KSU food scientist Karen Penner tested the influence of consumer education and product exposure (tasting irradiated and non-irradiated ground beef) on adults' acceptance of irradiated ground beef.
"Participants who received educational input before tasting irradiated ground beef said afterwards they thought irradiation was a positive technology," Penner says. "Moreover, these same people perceived no difference in the taste of the irradiated product compared with the non-irradiated. Several people even asked why it wasn't required for all ground beef to be irradiated."
TASTE TESTING IN UNCHARTED WATERS
In March, Julie Albrecht led a consumer awareness program and taste test at three grocery stores in Kearney, Neb., population 28,000.
"Of the 163 adults that participated in the taste test, only 13.5 percent reported that they had previously tasted irradiated ground beef," Albrecht says. "Although we did not have non-irradiated grilled ground beef samples to compare, 29.4 percent perceived taste differences in the grilled irradiated meat. After tasting the sample, 64 percent stated they either liked or liked very much the irradiated meat. Only 4 percent said that they disliked or disliked very much the irradiated sample."
When asked if they would purchase irradiated ground beef if it were available, 82 percent responded "definitely yes" or "probably yes," Albrecht reports.
RESPONDING TO RESULTS
Educators are getting the hint. Since education seems to be the key to consumer acceptance of irradiated food, solid efforts are in progress to pave the way.
Last fall, Purdue University food scientist April Mason worked with Purdue Extension educators Karen Richey and Joan Younce to develop a curriculum about food safety and irradiation technologies that is now being used in seven states.
Using USDA grant money, Mason also produced a video that explains food safety principles and irradiation in laymen's terms. Both the curriculum and the video target general consumer audiences, including civic groups, upper-level high school science classes and family and consumer science classes.
TAMU Extension program specialist Britta Thompson and Extension nutrition specialist Peggy Van Laanen are spearheading consumer education in Texas.
During the spring of 2002, they hosted a three-day food safety training program for Texas Extension agents. A survey was conducted three months before the training, immediately after the training and about three months after the training.
"When first asked how much food irradiation education they provided to consumers on an 'often,' 'sometimes,' 'seldom,' and 'never' basis, only 16 percent said they were providing education on this topic on a 'sometimes' or 'often' basis," Thompson says. "In a follow-up survey several months after the training, 57 percent of the agents were providing education on a 'sometimes' or 'often' basis."
Several Texas county agents conducted taste testing and consumer education regarding irradiated ground beef at the annual Panhandle-based Tri-State Fair last fall.
What's more, some county agents are hosting educational seminars for community groups, such as senior citizens.
Thompson and Van Laanen have also launched community-based training seminars for high school teachers and health professionals throughout the state. "We have found that one of the best ways to educate the public is by training educators," Thompson says. "By empowering educators with science-based facts, there is a multiplier effect. These professionals, in turn, educate many other consumers about the benefits of food irradiation." AM
Freelance journalist Linda L. Leake follows irradiation technology developments from her home base in Wilmington, N.C.