American consumer misconceptions about Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, and foot- and-mouth disease (FMD) may be beginning to impact purchase of beef and other animal products, according to a survey just released by Porter Novelli. A small percentage of those surveyed (14 percent) said they already have changed their food purchase or eating habits based on reports they had recently seen or heard regarding BSE and FMD.

The survey, conducted among primary food shoppers, underscores the need for more public education to help consumers understand distinctions between the two conditions, and to allay unnecessary fear when purchasing animal products in the United States.

"American consumers understandably are very confused," said Dan Snyder, director of Porter Novelli Washington's Food, Beverage and Nutrition Practice. "The U.S. must stay vigilant to ensure that we prevent BSE and FMD from entering our food supply. At the same time, our survey indicates the need for a national consumer education campaign to help clear up the confusion."

Responses Indicate Consumers Do Not Distinguish Between BSE and FMD

As an example of the confusion, shoppers' response to a question asking what actions they would take if BSE were found in the U.S., and asking the same if FMD were found in the U.S., were very similar. Even though FMD cannot infect humans, there was little difference in the responses: 71 percent indicated they would eliminate or reduce ground beef from their diet if FMD were found in U.S. livestock, and 80 percent indicated the same if BSE were found in U.S. livestock. Additionally, approximately half of all respondents said they would eliminate or reduce their consumption of other animal products, such as other meat, chicken, milk and cheese -- again, there was little difference between responses to the question on BSE and the parallel question on FMD.

    The survey also shows that:

    *  19 percent incorrectly thought that BSE and FMD were the same
    *  27 percent incorrectly thought there was a direct link between the two
    *  46 percent incorrectly thought that cows with FMD could infect humans

Whom Do Consumers Trust for Information?

When asked whom they would trust most to assure them that FMD is not contagious to humans, the survey respondents cited U.S. government agencies first and foremost -- such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- followed by physicians and independent scientists.

About Porter Novelli

With an approach to public relations grounded in the marketing discipline, Porter Novelli International ( ) serves clients through its 19 U.S. offices and through top-rated national practices in sectors including consumer marketing, health care, food and nutrition and technology. Among the specialized services the company provides to increase the effectiveness of PR programs are interactive, creative, advocacy advertising, public affairs and research. Porter Novelli is one of the leading public relations agencies in the U.S., and operates worldwide as Porter Novelli International. PNI has 100 offices in 50 countries and is one of the world's top 10 public relations firms.

The Porter Novelli survey was conducted by Opinion Research Corporation International April 6-9, 2001 by telephone to a random, national probability sample of 815 primary food shoppers (451 women and 364 men). The margin of error is +/- 3 percent.