Consumer Perception Of The Source Of Foodborne Illness

Many consumers misperceive the nature of foodborne illness and the most likely source of the pathogen (13). Consumer belief about the type of food responsible for foodborne illness—meat, poultry, seafood, eggs—is consistent with expert opinions. However, consumers believe foodborne disease is a minor illness without fever that occurs within a day of eating a contaminated food. Infections caused by Salmonella and Campylobacter, the most common foodborne illnesses in the United States (14), are not consistent with the symptoms consumers described, because of the longer latency and fever-causing properties.

Most consumers believe their illness is caused by food prepared somewhere other than the home. Williamson et al. (8) found about one-third of consumers thought food safety problems most likely occurred at food manufacturing facilities, and one-third blamed unsafe practices at restaurants. Only 16% thought the home was the most likely place for mishandling. Fein et al. (13) found 65% attributed foodborne illness to food prepared at a restaurant, with 17% believing the mishandling occurred at the supermarket and 17% at home. Similarly, a nationwide 1998 survey found 39% of consumers thought safety problems occurred at the food processor or manufacturer, 20% believed they occurred at the restaurant, and only 15% thought mishandling occurred in the home (15). In contrast, food safety experts believe sporadic cases and small outbreaks in home are far more common than those cases constituting recognized outbreaks (7).

If consumers misperceive the nature and origin of foodborne illness, they underestimate the frequency of serious consequences and thus are less motivated to change. Schafer et al. (16) found that motivation to practice safe food-handling behavior requires the belief that someone could be harmed by not following guidelines, and that new behavior could prevent foodborne disease. The failure to associate at-home food-handling practices with foodborne illness is a serious impediment to convincing people to discontinue potentially hazardous food-handling behavior (13).

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