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Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Irradiation

July 01, 1998


This report summarizes the findings of qualitative research conducted by Axiom Research Company on behalf of the International Food Information Council (IFIC). The purpose of this study was to examine consumer behavior and attitudes toward food irradiation in general, and in particular to explore consumers' opinions of the believability and importance of a series of statements regarding food irradiation.

In total, Axiom conducted six focus groups in three markets: Dallas, New York City, and Los Angeles. The groups were held between January 13 and February 5, 1998. In each market, one group was held among consumers who were "aware of" food irradiation and one group was held among general consumers who were "unaware." The "aware" group consisted of consumers with varying levels of favorability—very unfavorable to very favorable—toward food irradiation. A total of 47 people participated in the six groups. All groups were recruited using criteria developed by Axiom and IFIC. Noteworthy attitudinal differences between these consumer segments and between markets are noted within the report.

While the findings of focus groups provide useful insights into a particular subject and allow researchers to unearth unanticipated key issues, it is important to note that the results of focus groups are not statistically valid. In other words, one cannot project the findings of a single, or for that matter, multiple focus groups to the entire population.

Executive Summary/Recommendations

This research provides strong evidence that consumers' acceptance of food irradiation is positively correlated with their level of knowledge about the process. That is, the more consumers know about food irradiation, the more favorably inclined they are toward the process. Nearly all consumers left the focus groups with a more favorable (or at least accepting) opinion of food irradiation—regardless of their position toward the process at the onset of the session. One of the most striking aspects of this finding is that it is true even among those consumers who initially held an unfavorable view of the process. Of course, a small number of consumers remained skeptical toward food irradiation at the close of the groups; however, most of these consumers were withholding final opinion until they got additional information—indicating that they too might be persuaded.

Although consumers learned quite a bit during the course of the groups, it is important to point out that their level of awareness of food irradiation at the onset of the group was surprisingly high. In fact, most "aware" consumers named food irradiation when asked to name processes used to make food safer (this was before the term was introduced by the moderator), and many "unaware" consumers had "heard of" irradiation when asked directly about the process by the moderator.

Moreover, many consumers' level of knowledge about food irradiation was quite sophisticated, with some being able to describe the process, its benefits, and perceived drawbacks. Specifically, most knew the process involved the use of energy or radioactivity to treat food. Furthermore, many knew that the objective of irradiation was to remove harmful bacteria (note: not to extend shelf-life). On a less positive note, a few associated the process with cancer and x-rays. A few highly knowledgeable consumers knew that herbs and medical supplies are irradiated, and that full-scale food irradiation would require the construction of irradiation plants on a national level. Most assumed food irradiation had been around for many (20-40) years, was regulated by the government, and was being practiced by food processors. Indeed, a large majority of participants speculated that irradiated products were available at their local supermarket, and they had most likely unknowingly purchased those products.

Although most consumers indicated that they would try irradiated foods, they said they would do so once. If the taste of the products was acceptable and they "didn't get sick" they would probably buy an irradiated product again. The importance of taste cannot be overemphasized as most said the benefits of irradiation (at least at this point) do not outweigh the importance of taste. Furthermore, with a few exceptions, consumers would be willing to pay more for irradiated foods—at least at the trial phase—because of safety benefits. Once consumers had tried and liked the food, they might pay a slight premium for the product. In addition, consumers indicated they would be willing to purchase irradiated food for their children. To our first point, it should be noted that up to and beyond this discussion consumers had a number of questions about food irradiation (e.g., How safe are irradiated foods? What research has been done? What are the side effects? What are the long-term effects?)

Although consumers are clearly not at the point where they are demanding irradiated food, most appear to accept the need for it as another tool to ensure that food is free of harmful bacteria, particularly food arriving from outside the country. Most consumers will accept food irradiation more readily if they know that it is being done in conjunction with "clean-up" efforts at the slaughterhouse level (i.e., irradiation is not a cover-up for "dirty meat" and "sloppy slaughterhouses").

Consumers are clearly more accepting of the idea of irradiated meat than irradiated fruits and vegetables. Consumers buy fruits and vegetables because they are fresh and they associate a health benefit with eating fresh fruits and vegetables. They are accustomed to buying fruits and vegetables on a regular basis because they want them to be fresh. In this way, the benefit of irradiation to fruits and vegetables (longer shelf-life) runs contrary to why consumers buy and consume them. In this case, (unlike with meat) irradiation may not fit a consumer need. Furthermore, describing irradiation as a way to "extend shelf-life" (even in the context of fruits and vegetables) has a negative impact on consumers' acceptance of irradiation for use on meat as they assume it means their meat will be older and less appealing.

Educating consumers

The challenge facing food irradiation is that consumers receive the information necessary to help them better understand the process as well as its benefits. This includes not only providing them information about the mechanics of the process (i.e., how food is irradiated), but also what the process does and does not do. Consumers need to be informed that food irradiation eliminates harmful bacteria without causing side effects, or altering the composition or flavor of food.

Naming the Process-Cold Pasteurization (Irradiation)

By far, "cold pasteurization" was the most popular of a series of names tested to describe the process. To most consumers, cold pasteurization evoked a familiar process, "updated for the 90s." As one participant summarized, "we've come up with a process of doing pasteurization without the heat." It should be noted that a few dissenting participants viewed the term as "Madison Avenue doublespeak" designed to deceive unsuspecting consumers. Consumers agreed that this name should be followed by "irradiation" in parentheses which would provide consumers with the name of the process (irradiation) along with a definition (cold pasteurization). This refinement of the name satisfied even the most skeptical consumers. Other names evaluated were viewed negatively, including: "electronic pasteurization," "energy pasteurization," and to a lesser extent "ionization."

Discussing the Process

To determine the most effective way to communicate with consumers regarding the process and its benefits, participants were asked to evaluate and discuss an editorial from USA Today (discussing the pros and cons of food irradiation), as well as react to a battery of message points regarding food irradiation. Some of the most important findings follow:

  • Consumers who felt more positively inclined toward food irradiation as a result of reading the USA Today editorial appeared to be strongly influenced by the fact that irradiation destroys E. coli and other harmful bacteria. Many were also moved by the fact that irradiated food is not radioactive and does not alter the composition of food. Knowing that irradiation was approved for use, had been around for a long time, and does not affect food flavor was also mentioned as important.
  • Consumers who felt less positively inclined toward irradiation after reading the articles were most apt to mention the negative editorial viewpoint that irradiation might replace safe harvesting, manufacturing, processing, and distribution practices. Consumers need to be assured food manufacturers and distributors are doing all they can to improve food safety at the source. Other fears stirred in consumers include their discomfort with the radioactivity involved in the process, in particular the potential harmful effects it could have on food, workers, the environment, themselves, and their family.
  • In general, messages are more believable if they avoid hyperbole. For example, a message discussing a "serious public health problem" tested more believable than the same phrase with the word "critical" replacing "serious."
  • In general, messages should be clear and direct, avoiding vague language. For example, one message discussing "health benefits" was considered too vague: consumers wanted an explanation for exactly which benefits were being referred to; i.e., "to eliminate harmful bacteria."
  • Messages concerning the fact that irradiation eliminates foodborne pathogens achieve high impact in terms of both importance and believability. However, in general, the words "foodborne pathogen" should be avoided. Instead, consumers preferred "harmful bacteria/germs."
  • Communications must reinforce the fact that food irradiation does not cause food or consumers to become radioactive, and does not alter the chemical composition or taste of foods.
  • Consumers must know they always have a choice of irradiated or non-irradiated food.
  • Potentially, the most believable source of information would be the media, such as news magazine shows. However, there is evidence that consumers look toward the government (i.e., the FDA and USDA) for a stamp of approval for this process. It is important to note that most consumers assume that food irradiation would be approved by the FDA-it's a given. So, while consumers will look for that stamp of approval, that cannot be the leading or only such endorsement. Sources such as food labels, scientists, and trusted spokespeople (e.g., former surgeon general, C. Everett Koop) also can play a credible role in informing consumers about food irradiation.

Labeling Irradiated Foods

Consumers were asked numerous questions regarding the labeling of irradiated foods, including a discussion of an identifying graphic and benefit statements.

  • Consumers agreed that irradiated food should be labeled with the following information: an explanation of the process; a measure of the energy used; the name of a U.S. government agency approving the process; any possible side effects; and an expiration date.
  • The Radura symbol was considered appealing and pleasant, and elicited a very positive reaction among nearly all consumers. Most consumers agreed though that this symbol would be too misleading or vague to stand alone on a product, as an uninformed individual might think it was a brand. Still, a number of participants said they would be inclined to buy irradiated foods if they saw this label.
  • Among a number of possible explanatory statements tested, "Cold pasteurized (irradiated) to eliminate harmful bacteria," "Irradiated for your safety," and "Treated with irradiation to eliminate harmful bacteria" were perceived to be the most informative and important.

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