NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- A significant number of consumers who took a break from eating beef will be eating it again come grilling season -- if there are no more reports of mad cow disease, a Rutgers University study shows.
In fact, 44% of those who said they've quit eating beef or have limited their consumption of it said they'd resume their old beef-eating habits within six months; of those, 14.5% said they'd be eating beef again within six weeks; most others, within a year.
"Our findings suggest that most who have given up beef in the short term may be grilling steaks again this summer," said Calum Turvey, an agricultural economist and head of Rutgers' Food Policy Institute.
What's more, the study shows survey participants have faith in their supermarkets. A full 77% of those who were aware of the December 2003 discovery of mad cow disease in Washington state consider the beef they buy at their local stores safe, while just 65% believe the U.S. beef supply in general is safe. Only 13% said they think the beef they buy at their local store is unsafe, while 22% said the U.S. beef supply in general is unsafe. Others said they were unsure.
Conducted by the Food Policy Institute, the survey involved polling 1,001 consumers nationally by telephone. The participants were asked about their awareness of the disease, their awareness of the December incident, and how their beef consumption had been affected.
"The study was well-balanced nationally and was reasonably well-balanced between male and female respondents who ranged in age from 18 to 80," Turvey pointed out.
If anything surprised the researchers, it was the particularly high level of awareness people exhibited, Turvey said.
William Hallman, associate professor of human ecology and an associate director of the FPI -- who, with Turvey and FPI Associate Director Brian Schilling, designed the study -- agreed.
"More than 92% had heard of the disease, and 85% specifically said they knew about the December case in Washington state. That's huge," Hallman said.
On a particularly positive note, 68% of those who were aware of the discovery in the United States said their confidence in the nation's beef supply remains unchanged, and 8% said their confidence has actually increased. Additional data show they have confidence in the government's efforts and that they believe the government and farmers are taking appropriate measures to control the disease.
The FPI researchers said they believe their survey pretty accurately reflects Americans' thinking on the subject.
"We're happy with our statistics. There's a 3.2% plus or minus margin for error, which is good. Our results are pretty similar to what CNN/Time came up with earlier. We hope, if we get the funding, to do a follow-up study. We'll see if answers then are even more positive as time goes on without additional incidents," Hallman told SN.
While news of the discovery in December immediately dried up the $3 billion U.S. beef export market, Americans apparently were relatively unruffled by the news. Unlike consumers in many countries, Americans have a history of trust in their food regulators, and have a strong belief that the U.S. food supply is safe, the researchers said. One researcher said he thought recent government actions may have bolstered consumer confidence.
"Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman's message that the likelihood of human illness resulting from the case of mad cow disease is extremely low appears to have reassured many about the safety of the beef supply," said FPI's Schilling.
Two-thirds of Americans who had heard of the case were also aware of Veneman's statement, and 22% of that group said it made them feel more confident of U.S. beef's safety. Similarly, 18% felt reassured by the USDA's determination that the cow was of Canadian origin.
Given what else the study uncovered, it could easily be a surprise that confidence is so high. For example, many Americans expect more cases to surface in the United States. Of those participating in the FPI survey, 70% believe it is likely that another mad cow case will be found.
Indeed, 27% think it is "very likely," and more than one-third incorrectly believed that other cases of mad cow had already been discovered in the United States. An additional 10% said they weren't sure.
Further, more than a quarter polled believe that cases of the human equivalent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy did exist in the United States, or they did not know. However, few are particularly worried that the disease poses a direct threat to the health of themselves or their families.