U of Guelph goes big with food focus group

Canadians’ eating habits and reactions to food safety scares may soon be tracked through a 2,000-member consumer panel developed at the University of Guelph.

The Guelph Food Panel is billed as the first large-scale panel consumer group dedicated to food and research. It’s expected the panel will allow researchers to survey participants with 24 hours’ notice and assess any changes in their responses over time.

Guelph ag economist John Cranfield, one of the panel developers, said there’s no other such instrument in Canada.

“We can see how people’s concerns and perceptions about food and their consumption patterns change over time,” he said in the release. “We can also get immediate consumer responses to food scares, such as whether people stopped eating spinach after some brands were found to be tainted with E. coli.”

Methods used until now yielded just a “snapshot” of data because researchers would survey a certain group of people at a certain time, Cranfield said.

But the Guelph panel’s members can be surveyed on the same topic years apart to see how their views have changed and can also give immediate responses to any food crisis that might occur, the university said. “If there is a food scare tonight, we can send them a survey within 24 hours,” said Spencer Henson, a research professor who also helped develop the panel.

It’s expected panel members will get half a dozen online surveys a year on topics relating to Canada’s food system. The panel is made up of people from the Guelph area, recruited based on age, gender and level of education to ensure the group is representative of the Canadian population, Henson said.

Researchers said they expect to look at consumers’ perceptions of the food system and their level of confidence in players ranging from local farms to importers to grocery chains.

Also up for study will be panel members’ responses to new foods, their diets and whether they’re trying to eat healthier, what types of food they believe to be healthier and what they perceive to be obstacles to healthy eating.

Researchers said they’re still accepting members for the panel and anyone interested can send e-mail to the research team.

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