Study urges food processors to keep consumers in the loop

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety Food Food standards agency

Educating consumers about new technology that enables the production of minimally processed foods is critical to ensuring that they will pay extra for such products, according to findings published in the Journal of Food Science Education.

The authors of the study, who are affiliated with the University of Delaware and University of Rhode Island, said that consumers are increasingly demanding food that is minimally processed, additive free and has an extended shelf life, and as such there has been increased interest in the development of non thermal-processing technologies.

The researchers explained that along with irradiation, high hydrostatic-pressure (HPP) is one such non-thermal technology, and involves the application of hydrostatic compression and varying process temperatures for the inactivation of microorganisms.

They argue that the safety and quality of foods produced by HPP have not been well communicated to the public, and that emerging technologies often face a stumbling block in consumer acceptance and processing costs.

Consumer reaction

In order to evaluate consumer awareness and attitudes to HPP products, the authors said they conducted an online, nationwide consumer survey, through a survey clearing-house.

“Following a brief explanation of HPP and its potential food safety benefits, consumers were asked whether they would be willing to pay increased prices for food products manufactured using HPP if it resulted in the same or better quality and was safer,”​ explained the authors.

They said that the results showed there was generally very little awareness of how HPP works but, following the information received, 39 per cent of those surveyed said they would be willing to pay an additional cost for ready-to-eat food produced in this way, while 15 per cent of respondents said that they would be unwilling to pay extra.

The remaining 45 per cent were unsure about whether they would spend more for safer measures.

The authors added those in the higher income and higher education bracket of survey respondents made up a large percentage of those consumers willing to pay more for HPP treated products.

Moreover, they said that it is clear from their findings, and from previous consumer reaction to foods produced using irradiation, that public outreach strategies should be integrated during the development and not after the technology has been put on the market shelves.

Emotion over fact

Meanwhile, a recent report published by the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) claims that consumer response to new food technologies such as nanotechnology, irradiation, pulsed light techniques and HPP are frequently driven by emotions rather than facts.

Based on the data collated, the findings show that consumers, in general, are wary when they are not sure about the benefits and risks of an application.

“Given a lack of knowledge about emerging food technologies, people seem to rely on their pre-existing knowledge and values to form judgements about the technologies they are questioned on,”​ stated the author.

Trust factor

The review also highlighted that the media, government and industry tend to be the least trusted sources of information about emerging food technologies, with consumers particularly sceptical about the motives of big business.

“Trust in these institutions does vary according to location. US consumers, for example, have higher levels of trust in their regulator than European consumers,​” claims the review.

In addition, the study concludes that women and older people have been found to have the highest levels of concern about emerging processing techniques, but the report stressed that attitudes towards technology in general, towards health and nutrition and cultural values are better predictors of attitudes than demographic characteristics.

The findings also show that attitudes towards novel food processes interact with other considerations such as price and taste when people make food purchasing decisions – while price, for example, may be the top priority for one person, for someone else concern over a processing method may overcome cost considerations.

Related topics Processing & packaging

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