Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Consumer Preferences for Safe Handling Labels on Meat and Poultry

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Consumer Preferences for Safe Handling Labels on Meat and Poultry

Article excerpt

USDA has long known that bacterial contaminants in meat and poultry are a major source of foodborne illness in the United States (58 FR 58922) and that most foodborne illness can be prevented by proper food handling (FSIS 1993). USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which inspects meat and poultry and engages in other activities to protect public health, has educated the public since 1971 about safe food handling (FSIS 1993). Nonetheless, recent cases of illness and death resulting from E. coli 0157:H7 and the evidence implicating undercooked hamburgers indicated a level of risk that motivated the USDA to seek a new policy direction (58 FR 43478).

Manufacturers and the government are increasingly turning to information and warning labels to communicate information to consumers. Warning labels are required on cigarettes and alcohol, and nutrition labels on food became mandatory in July 1994. In 1993, FSIS decided to require safe handling statements on certain raw and partially cooked meat and poultry products. The agency wanted to require instructions on product labels concerning storage, cross-contamination, cooking, and handling leftovers, but was unsure how much information to require and in what format. To help the agency answer questions like these, the Research Triangle Institute conducted nine focus group discussions with household food preparers in three cities. The purpose of the focus groups was to determine which format under consideration would be most useful to consumers and to identify weaknesses in the wording and presentation. Additionally, the Institute collected information concerning consumers' meat and poultry handling habits using a pre-interview survey developed by FSIS.


Researchers often use qualitative research methods to gain insight into consumers' preferences. One of the most frequently used qualitative research methods is focus group research (Greenbaum 1988). Focus group research has been used to evaluate nutrition education materials as well as other types of printed labels or pamphlets such as risk messages. Shepherd and her colleagues (1989) used focus groups to investigate consumers' preferences for the design and content of printed materials for nutrition education. They found consumers are willing to discuss the design and content of such materials and often have strong preferences. Desvousges and Smith (1988) described the usefulness of focus group research for pretesting and improving risk messages. They reported that pretesting provides useful suggestions for simplifying the language and organization of risk communication.

One of the primary strengths of focus group research over surveys alone is that it allows participants to explain motivations for their attitudes, perceptions, and preferences. However, as with any qualitative research study, the results of focus group sessions are not intended to be generalized to a larger population (Fern 1982). Quantitative generalizations from focus group results would be statistically invalid because the sample size and selection are limited. Nevertheless, qualitative research from focus groups can uncover attitudes and opinions found in the general population (Churchill 1991).

Focus group sessions are loosely structured, with the moderator introducing topics or following through on responses to ensure the group discussion centers on the main issues of interest. Greenbaum (1988) reported that the dynamics of the group process generate more useful information in a cost-efficient manner than other qualitative techniques. The literature provides guidance on commonly accepted methods of recruiting participants, designing discussion guides, and moderating effectively (Greenbaum 1988; Krueger 1988; Stewart and Shamdasani 1990).

For this study, the authors conducted three focus groups with between seven and 11 participants each in each of three cities (Raleigh, North Carolina; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Las Vegas, Nevada) for a total of nine focus groups involving 86 adults. …

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