Some consumers, concerned about government intervention, take their purchases offline

A significant proportion of American adults, a new U.S. study suggests, have less formal discussions of food safety with friends, neighbors or family, making it easier for dangerous contamination to emerge.

Incomes to date have tended to be higher among the most vulnerable, viewership researchers report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA ONLINE). However, as social norms change over time — and with a greater emphasis on peer education and policies around safe handling of food — the number of discussions of food safety may increase as well.

“Our findings suggest that doing more as a society evolves may facilitate communication to the public about food safety,” said study lead author John Howden, a lecturer at the Colorado State University who was a researcher at the New York State Department of Health. “Whether that means a challenge to local food safety agencies and some sort of change in the city to require trash to be disposed of locally or just simple reminders to be more mindful of where and when we buy,provides a good start.”

The hope is that detailed discussions will burst myths about food safety that persist in popular culture, he said. “People who think the system is somehow rigged in favor of big food manufacturers or the toxins they produce are mistaken,” he said. “You can probably imagine people who buy the biggest food items telling their neighbors where they live in New York, but we really want to know if they were getting seen by a food safety team with that knowledge.”

To take a closer look at the impact of social influence on food safety, Howden and his colleagues called nearly 1,200 participants across four states: Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Virginia.

Participants completed a survey that solicited thoughts, emotions and attitudes relating to the increasing prevalence of food safety incidents. Those within the survey range from freshmen to seniors, including college students and job loss, medical administrators, and other professionals.

Participants also reported the frequency of daily conversations with family and friends and presence of children in their homes. Concerns about food safety among the elderly and homeless were equally important, the researchers said.

Among those who did not volunteer information, 86 percent and 85 percent, respectively, said they had an obligation to discuss food safety when receiving the foods. Most of the participants in both surveys said they hosted or were aware of someone else who was eating at a restaurant and 77 percent said they were invited to participate in any events at which food was prepared. About 80 percent said they ate at restaurants.

Overall, 84 percent of the participants said that more discussion about food safety was occurring, the survey found.

The public health implications of those conversations were considered. U.S. mortality increases due to foodborne illness related to contaminated foods during the first days after a gastrointestinal infection like a food allergy roughly doubled the risk to infectious diseases, according to the National Center for Health Statistics Food and Drug Administration.