Food crises fail to dent public confidence

The Food Standards Agency has just published its biannual consumer attitudes survey. David Burrows compares these results with those in the first tracker of November 2010.

THE GOOD NEWS is that people are less concerned about food issues than they were back in 2010 – albeit only slightly. This seems remarkable – in that period there has been everything from horsemeat and fipronil scandals to the obesity crisis and of course the Brexit vote. Digging a little deeper into the data on trust in the food industry, 75% are confident that what they buy is exactly what’s listed on the pack, while 73% trust the authenticity of the products. However, only 41% of respondents think the food sector has their “best interests at heart”.

A concern for the Food Standards Agency will be that ONLY 59% OF THOSE POLLED TRUST AUTHORITIES TO EFFECTIVELY PREVENT AND DETECT FOOD FRAUD and 60% think the regulatory system is fair. Of the 79% that had heard of the FSA, 69% trusted the agency to do its job (compared with 62% in wave 1). The agency has been criticised of late for its Regulating Our Food programme, which proposes giving more weight to private assurance of safety and standards. The FSA chair, Heather Hancock, recently said that it was “nonsense” that the agency was asking companies to regulate themselves. “No responsible business” wants to do that, she told FoodNavigator.com. However, critics believe it’s a “light touch” approach to regulation – the latest paper in a series of Brexit briefing papers by the Food Research Collaboration noted that any attempt to deliver Brexit and the FSA’s programme “risks turning a difficult situation into a potentially dangerous one”.

There were also some intriguing differences when it comes to eating out. Concerns relating to food hygiene have fallen slightly from 36% in 2010 to 33% in the latest poll. However, there is a much bigger fluctuation if you consider where people live – IN ENGLAND 35% ARE CONCERNED ABOUT FOOD HYGIENE WHEN EATING OUT BUT IN NORTHERN IRELAND IT’S JUST 23%. Is this because food hygiene certificates in the latter must be displayed? Hygiene stickers and general appearance of the premises are what most people use to determine hygiene standards (both 61%) – and yet only 49% of food businesses in England display their ratings, compared to 82% in Northern Ireland (up from 48% in 2016) and 84% in Wales (68% in 2016).

There’s also been a shift in the top concerns. From 2010 to 2015 food price was the principal worry for consumers. Look back at wave 1 results, for example, and 54% identified it as a concern, while 14% did so spontaneously. Just behind that were salt (45% and 8%), food waste (42% and 4%) and animal welfare (40% and 6%). Sugar was on the radar, with 39% noting it as a worry, 6% spontaneously. But fast-forward to wave 16, the latest results, and SUGAR HAS DISPLACED FOOD PRICE AS PEOPLE’S TOP FOOD CONCERN. In 2018, 55% were worried about the amount of sugar in their food – the biggest jump (16 percentage points) of any other of the concerns listed in the survey – compared with 43% for food prices (some might wonder why it’s not higher). Fears over post-Brexit prices persist (65% of Scottish shoppers think prices will go up, for example) but there is little doubt that it will be hard to shift sugar from the survey’s summit.

And finally, businesses will also want to note that despite their best efforts it can be incredibly hard to shift some of these ingrained concerns. Take salt – the UK’s programme of salt reduction has been heralded at an exemplar but in 2018 41% of consumers are still worried about it, down only 4 points since 2010 (45%).

The full results of the tracker are available here.

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