Survey finds no link between foodborne-illness risk and acceptance of irradiation

Jan 18, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – A recent survey of more than 10,000 people in seven states found no connection between people's risk factors for foodborne illness, such as risky food-handling habits, and their willingness to buy irradiated meat and poultry, according to a report in the December Journal of Food Protection.

The researchers found that "persons at increased risk of foodborne illness were not especially willing to buy irradiated meat or poultry, despite the potential hazards they faced from handling or undercooking raw meat or poultry contaminated by microbial pathogens." The survey indicated that men, people with higher incomes and education, and those familiar with irradiation were significantly more willing to buy irradiated products.

The data come from the 1998-99 population survey conducted by the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, or FoodNet, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC's) Emerging Infections Program. (CDC collaborates with other federal agencies and nine state health departments on FoodNet.) The survey included 10,780 adults in Connecticut, Georgia, Minnesota, Oregon, California, Maryland, and New York. The report was prepared by Paul D. Frenzen of the US Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service and colleagues from other agencies.

In the survey, people were classified as "risky food handlers" if they usually did not wash their hands and their cutting board with soap and water after handling or cutting raw meat or poultry. Respondents were classified as "risky eaters" if they had recently eaten any ground beef, ground pork, or poultry products that were pink on the inside. Other foodborne-illness risk factors in the survey included age over 60 years, presence of children under 5 years old in the household, and compromised immune status. Sixty-five percent of the respondents had one or more of the risk factors.

Overall, just under half (49.6%) of those surveyed expressed a willingness to buy irradiated meat or poultry. When individual characteristics were analyzed alone, most of them were linked with small but significant differences in acceptance of irradiated foods. However, when logistic regression was used to control for other individual characteristics, fewer differences were significant.

Risky food handlers and immunocompromised people were slightly more inclined to accept irradiated foods, while risky eaters, people with young children, and the elderly were slightly less inclined. But none of these differences were significant.

However, men were significantly more likely than women to accept irradiated foods (adjusted odds ratio [OR], 1.32; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.18-1.49; P=.000). Likewise, those with any college study were more accepting than those with high school only (OR, 1.21; 95% CI, 1.07-1.37; P=.003), and those with incomes over $30,000 were more accepting than those with lower incomes (OR, 1.32; 95% CI, 1.15-1.51; P=.000). Respondents were also more likely to accept food irradiation if they had heard of it before than if they had not (OR, 1.20; 95% CI, 1.07-1.35; P=.003). In addition, people who prepared raw meat or poultry were more accepting than other adults (OR, 1.29; 95% CI, 1.03-1.61; P=.026).

Minnesota had the highest level of overall willingness to buy irradiated products, at 53%, while Maryland was lowest at 46%. In the regression analysis, California, Connecticut, and Maryland all had significantly lower acceptance levels than Minnesota.

The authors say it is not clear why people at higher risk for foodborne illness were not more willing to buy irradiated products, but they may simply have been unaware of their risk or the protection offered by irradiation. "From a public health perspective, awareness of food irradiation was the most important characteristic associated with greater willingness to buy irradiated products," and this characteristic was independent of other variables, such as education, the article says.

The authors caution that "questions about hypothetical purchase decisions may not reflect actual market behavior." That limitation may be particularly relevant in this case because the survey did not mention the higher cost of irradiated products, they note.

Frenzen PD, DeBess EE, Hechemy KE, et al. Consumer acceptance of irradiated meat and poultry in the United States. J Food Protection 2001;64(12):2020-6

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