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Listeria scare changed consumer habits: survey

It’s no secret that this summer’s deadly listeriosis outbreak was costly for several Canadian food companies, but a consumer survey now shows how deeply it dug into consumer confidence and buying choices.

Researchers at the University of Guelph turned to the Guelph Food Panel, a group of 2,000 people in the Guelph, Ont. area who can be surveyed with 24 hours’ notice. The panel is billed as the first large-scale consumer group dedicated to food and research.

“It provides a snapshot of a city that is representative of Canada,” said Guelph ag economist John Cranfield, who helped develop the panel earlier this year. “There is no other instrument like it in the country.”

Before Maple Leaf Foods launched its massive listeriosis-related product recall of ready-to-eat (RTE) meats this summer, “consumers did not consider the potential risks of ready-to-eat meats to be significant,” Cranfield said in a university release Wednesday.

But 96 per cent of the Guelph panelists knew about the recall and that it originated in Canada, and 92 per cent knew listeria to be the cause.

Following the outbreak and recall, Cranfield and fellow economist Spencer Henson said, the proportion of panelists who said they never consume RTE meats at home jumped from six to 39 per cent. The percentage of people who said they never eat RTE meat products in fast-food outlets or restaurants increased from nine to 56 per cent.

Among the Food Panel’s panelists, Cranfield and Henson reported, 30 per cent said they have stopped buying RTE meats from Canada; 27 per cent said they now eat less often at restaurants and fast-food outlets; 52 per cent said they now pay more attention to food labels; 32 per cent cook more food at home; and 30 per cent take more time in food preparation.

All that said, about 70 per cent of respondents said their perception of the safety of meat in general, of food products, and of food as a whole has not changed. Also, 75 per cent said they consider RTE meats safe to eat.

“This suggests that consumers have not generalized the listeria food recall to their perception of food as a whole,” Henson said in the release.

Previous concerns

Also, the researchers said, “prevailing concerns” about food safety were key in how consumers respond to food recalls. For example, they said, 44 per cent of respondents who had previous concerns about food safety were worried about the Maple Leaf recall, compared with 30 per cent who were previously not concerned.

Cases of listeriosis across Canada this summer were tied to products from a Maple Leaf Foods RTE meat processing plant in Toronto. The company responded by launching a major and well-publicized product recall that crossed over into other food brands using product from the facility. The Toronto plant, which was shut down Aug. 20, is now in limited production.

As of Oct. 17, the strain of listeria linked to the Toronto plant has been confirmed by federal officials to have sickened 53 people in seven provinces, mostly in Ontario. Of those 53, 29 people have died and in 20 of those cases, listeria was confirmed as the underlying cause.

In financial terms, Maple Leaf booked a net loss of nearly $13 million in its quarter ending Sept. 30, partly on $42.9 million in costs related to product recalls and company restructuring.

Premium Brands, a B.C. income fund well known in the processed meats business, also recently reported in its own Q3 “a general decline in consumer spending across a range of product categories including pre-packaged sandwiches and sliced deli meats.”

Premium credited the Maple Leaf recall with about $800,000 in lost revenues on its own books, on top of a recall of product from one of Premium Brands’ own pre-packaged sandwich plants, which it said cost a further $300,000 in lost sales in its Q3.

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