Over the past 20 years, there may have been a correlation between media coverage of food safety issues and safe food handling and consumption, according to a new study in the Journal of Food Protection.

Researchers from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the University of Maine School of Economics looked at data from food safety surveys conducted by the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1988, 1993, 2001, 2006 and 2010.  

They concluded that “changes in safety of practices over the survey years are consistent with the change in the number of media stories about food safety in the periods between surveys.

“This finding suggests that increased media attention to food safety issues may raise awareness of food safety hazards and increase vigilance in food handling by consumers,” the authors wrote.

The survey indicates that consumers’ self-reported food safety practices improved after well-publicized, major episodes like the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, then plateaued or dropped off, picking up after another big news story like the Chinese melamine scandal. Perception of risk might also be influenced by media coverage, but that’s not so clear, the study suggests.

While the food safety practices and risk perception trends identified in the food safety surveys from 1993 through 2010 do not appear related to the absolute numbers of food safety related news articles,  “there is an intriguing association between these trends and the change in the number of articles,” the study notes.

“Periods when in-home food handling practices improved (1993 through 1998 and 2006 through 2010) coincide with a high average increase in levels of food safety coverage by the media,” the authors wrote. “Periods when food safety coverage was flat or declining coincide with flat or declining in-home food handling practices.”

“Media coverage of a hazard may increase its perceived risk by agenda setting (telling people what to think about) or by providing salient information that increases top-of-mind awareness of the hazard (top-of-mind awareness is a marketing term used to describe which brand consumers think of first when they consider a product, and by extension, which specifics are thought of first in a given situation).”

Other survey findings:

— Safe handling of meat, chicken and eggs (i.e., washing hands or prep surfaces after touching or cutting raw meat) has increased since 1988.


— More respondents reported unsafe practices after handling eggs than after handling meat, chicken or fish.

— More respondents reported handling fish safely than handling meat or chicken safely.

—  The most commonly reported risky food consumption practice was eating raw eggs, followed by eating under-cooked hamburgers.

— Consumption of raw fish has greatly increased since 1993 and be 2010, eating raw fish was more common that eating undercooked hamburger.

— Risky food consumption (defined as eating raw or undercooked foods such as oysters, fish, steak tartar, pink hamburgers) has increased.

— Women report safer food handling and eating more than men.

— Those in the oldest (65 and older) and youngest (18 to 29 years old) age groups were most likely to eat risky foods.

— Those with the highest education reported the riskiest food-handling practices.

The surveys were conducted by phone with 1,620 to 4,547 participants; the most recent surveys involved more than 4,400 respondents.