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Pundit’s Mailbag — Rutgers Response

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, February 16, 2007

Our piece Consumer Studies On Spinach Reviewed…And Costco’s Proactive Approach brought a response from the fine people at Rutgers, who sponsored and authored one of the studies referenced in the article:

We appreciate your calling attention to our national survey regarding the recent recall of spinach potentially contaminated with E. coli 0157:H7. However, we wish to correct a few misperceptions likely to have arisen as the result of your comments. In particular, we believe that a more careful reading of the report would clarify the issues you raised in your commentary.

For example, in the beginning of our report we clarify the reasons that we purposely chose to use the term “recall” rather than “advisory” when speaking with consumers. As we point out, one of the important distinguishing characteristics of this incident was that the FDA initially advised consumers not to eat any fresh spinach, regardless of where it was grown or packaged. Thus, this advice went beyond the recall of specific brands or packages of spinach. However, while we (and your audience) are very clear about the distinctions between advisories and recalls, much of the public is not. Therefore, in our survey, we needed to balance the precision of the term “advisory” with the greater familiarity of the term “recall.”

In choosing which word to use, we conducted a search of the terms used in relevant news stories published by eight major newspapers which represented east, midwest and west coast news coverage between 9/15/06 and 9/22/06; counting the number of times the terms recall (recalls, recalling, recalled), and advisory (advises, advisories) were used in discussing the spinach contamination. The term recall (and its permutations) was used much more often (107 times) than advisory (and its permutations) (30 times). Because the media referred to these events in terms of the “spinach recall,” we chose to use the same term in speaking with the public and in discussing our results.

In addition, you comment:

“The study also seems to imply a degree of consumer autonomy that belies the reality of the enormous influence retail stores have on these matters. So it declares that ‘…the data clearly indicate that the majority of consumers did stop eating spinach during the recall.’ Doubtless this is true, but whether this happened as a result of the FDA advisory is just speculation. What made this result a lead-pipe cinch is that virtually no retailers were selling spinach during this period. Unless you grew your own, you were not going to be eating much fresh spinach.”

It is absolutely true that most retailers withdrew fresh spinach from their shelves, which would have made it difficult for consumers to purchase the product during this period. However, I believe you overlooked an important part of our report. We found that 30% of people who eat spinach and were aware of the recall “say that they had fresh spinach in their homes when they first learned about it.” While more than three-quarters (77%) reported ultimately discarding the spinach once they learned about the recall, more than one-quarter (27%) say they consumed some or all of the spinach they had in their home and 72% of these say they knew about the recall at the time they ate it.” So, consumers did have the autonomy to disregard the FDA’s advisory and eat the spinach that they already had in their homes, or to throw it out. That some chose to eat spinach despite knowing about the “recall” is of concern, but it doesn’t erase the fact that most people who knew about it did stop eating spinach during the recall, including most of those who had spinach at home.

You also point out that the statement “The spinach recall is still in effect” is “technically” true. We agree, but regardless of the procedural veracity of the statement, it is highly predictive of having eaten spinach since September. Again, as we discuss in our report, people who believe that the “recall is still in effect” is true or don’t know whether it’s true are two and a half times less likely to report having eaten any fresh spinach since September compared to those who say it is false. Thus, we are much more interested in understanding why some people have not returned to eating spinach than whether or not the public is aware that if they find a bag of the recalled spinach in the back of their refrigerators they are still entitled to get their money back. We believe that your readers are more interested in how to regain their consumers as well.

Thus, we stand behind our contention that while most Americans had heard the FDA’s initial advice that they shouldn’t eat fresh spinach, many fewer got the FDA’s message that they could be confident in consuming the fresh spinach now on store shelves. The fact that there has never been a definitive “all clear” message (in part because of ongoing concerns about the risk of product contamination) and that such a message is important to regaining consumer confidence is exactly our point

— William Hallman
Director, Food Policy Institute
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Many thanks to Dr. Hallman for his letter. As we mentioned in the article our assessment was that “The report…is well worth reading.” There is no question that the authors of the study were diligent, that the Food Policy Institute contributes much to our knowledge of the food industry and that Rutgers is an important and reputable institution.

The Pundit thinks, however, that intelligent and well-intentioned researchers selected the wrong path, in deciding how to proceed with this study.

While the Pundit is doubtless guilty of many sins, not reading documents carefully is not one of them.

The problem here is not a lack of understanding but, rather, a disagreement as to what might be the preferable approach.

Although we recognize the reason that the researchers elected to use the word “recall” in conducting the telephone survey, we think it added an element of confusion that makes the results difficult to interpret. This is especially true because one of the purposes of the study was to evaluate “…what did they [consumers] do in response to the advisories issued by the FDA warning them not to eat fresh spinach.”

The problem is not so much the use of one word or another, but a failure to define these terms to the respondents, which means we can never be sure what we are talking about.

Because there are two separate categories of overlapping events — recalls by various companies and consumer advisories not to eat spinach — it becomes crucial to understand what, precisely, was the motivating factor in consumer behavior at every point in time.

The use of one word — recall — to describe these two overlapping categories of events makes this problematic.

In Dr. Hallman’s letter he explains:

I believe you overlooked an important part of our report. We found that 30% of people who eat spinach and were aware of the recall “say that they had fresh spinach in their homes when they first learned about it.” While more than three-quarters (77%) reported ultimately discarding the spinach once they learned about the recall, more than one-quarter (27%) say they consumed some or all of the spinach they had in their home and 72% of these say they knew about the recall at the time they ate it.”

That 30% of the people had fresh spinach in their home when they first learned about “it” — is an excellent example of how frustrating this survey was to read.

How are we to know what the meaning of the word “it” is in this context?

The word “it” could mean the literal meaning of the word. This would imply that consumers heard about a recall by companies such as Natural Selection Foods and/or Dole and/or other companies.

Or “it” could mean that the consumers had heard about the FDA advisory not to eat spinach.

But there appears to be no way to distinguish between these two different states of knowledge.

This matters because based on a corporate recall, we would not expect consumers to automatically not eat spinach they had in their house. We would expect them to ascertain if the brand of spinach they had in the house was subject to recall and return or discard the recalled product.

But if a consumer learned about the recall, learned what brands it was applicable to, noted that in the refrigerator was an unaffected brand and then consumed it, the behavior is unobjectionable.

This is a good example of the problem with the use of the word “recall” in the study. We have no way of knowing if those consumers that ate spinach after they heard about the “recall” — ate spinach after they heard that certain brands were recalled or if they ate spinach after they heard that the FDA had advised not to eat any spinach. Two completely different behavior sets, each one pregnant with different meaning regarding the influence of the FDA.

In effect, the lack of clarity in the data just makes it very difficult to draw strong conclusions. We just don’t know from the way the question was asked if that 27% of those who had spinach in the house and the 72% of those who say they ate it after they were aware of the recall were intentionally disregarding the FDA advisory or were scrupulously following the edicts of a product recall.

We appreciate the study and find much value in it but do think that this is a missed opportunity.

As far as getting customers back, we simply want to draw attention to the impact that retailers have in this regard. As an example, during the entire time this survey was conducted Costco, for example, was not selling any spinach. Someone who was accustomed to buying his spinach at Costco may well have thought that the advisory was still in effect — seeing the absence of spinach as evidence. So the point that Dr. Hallman notes: “…people who believe that the ‘recall is still in effect’ is true or don’t know whether it’s true are two and a half times less likely to report having eaten any fresh spinach since September compared to those who say it is false.” — may be a case of correlation rather than causation: Consumers who shop at venues that are not yet restocking spinach or not to the extent as they did before are both ill informed about the ending of the consumer advisory and don’t eat much spinach.

To put this another way, all the spinach disappeared from retail shelves across America in a very short period of time. It is being phased back in over many months. This has an effect both on consumer perception of the situation and consumer purchase and consumption behavior.

To Dr. Hallman’s final point: “The fact that there has never been a definitive ‘all clear’ message (in part because of ongoing concerns about the risk of product contamination) and that such a message is important to regaining consumer confidence is exactly our point.”

We couldn’t agree more.

It is never easy to have one’s work publicly critiqued and 20-20 hindsight is always good, so we express our appreciation to Dr. Hallman and his team both for doing this important work and for putting it out for public assessment. By all working together we can learn more and do things better.

It is a long report and our quibble is really with one word. We strongly disagree with those critics who have dismissed the report because it is built off of November data. Understanding how consumer perception evolves post a food safety outbreak is crucial.

Once again, many thanks to Dr. Hallman for his letter.

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