WASHINGTON -- The more consumers know about food irradiation, the more they want it -- however, they know very little, according to a national study recently sponsored by the American Meat Institute Foundation here.
While 73% of those surveyed said they had heard of irradiation, only 19% knew "something about the process" and only 5% knew "a lot about it," according to the study.
Indeed, 54% of those familiar with the term could not name an advantage -- and 53% could not name a disadvantage.
But about half the consumers who were told that irradiation could kill bacteria and extend product freshness said they "were likely" to buy specific irradiated food products.
For example, about half said they "were likely" to buy irradiated poultry (52%) and beef (50%); and slightly less than half said they "were likely" to buy irradiated pork (48%), fruits and vegetables (47%) and seafood (45%).
The study was conducted by the Gallup Organization, Princeton, N.J.; Abt Associates, Bethesda, Md., and the Center for Food Safety and Quality Enhancement at the University of Georgia, Griffin, Ga. In a shopping simulation in the study, 71% of the consumers exposed to an educational message on the benefits of irradiation chose to purchase irradiated ground beef -- as opposed to 52% who were not given such information.
The consumer study, which was based on more than 1,000 surveys, plus focus groups and shopping simulations, was designed to assess consumer awareness, knowledge and attitudes toward the process.
The safety of food treated by irradiation was high on the list of consumer concerns.
Sixty-two percent of those surveyed were "extremely concerned" that irradiated foods could cause birth defects, and 40% were concerned about reduced levels of nutrients and vitamins.
Less than half were concerned about irradiation's effect on environmental pollution (49%) and increased food prices (38%).
Consumers expressed greater concern over the use of irradiation and other chemical processes -- like chlorination and preservatives -- to treat foods, than for pasteurization, canning, fermentation and freezing. At the same time, they rated irradiation more favorably than the use of drug residues and hormones in meat.
In one part of the study, consumers who were told that irradiation kills bacteria and has the approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization rated its use as more vital for meat, seafood and poultry than for fruits and vegetables.
Forty-five percent considered it "very necessary" for pork, 44% for poultry, 43% for seafood and 36% for beef -- while only 23% rated it necessary for fruits and vegetables.
The study also showed that an endorsement by the American Medial Association had a greater impact on increasing consumer confidence than endorsements by the U.S. FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Health Organization.