Spikes in Internet searches reflect consumers responding to food safety warnings

Line chart showing monthyl web searches for "canteloupe," "Salmonella," and "listeria"

Evidence from Internet searches suggests that many consumers actively seek information about foodborne pathogens in response to warnings from Federal health and safety officials. For example, searches using the term “Salmonella” display four large spikes, coincident with FDA’s February 2007 warnings about peanut butter products, the June 2008 warning to avoid tomatoes and other raw vegetables, regulatory actions taken in January and February 2009 regarding peanut butter, and FDA’s August 2010 egg recall. A recent ERS case study concludes that consumers can distinguish between different foodborne risks. In 2011 and 2012, consumers were warned away from cantaloupes because of bacterial contamination that could cause foodborne illness. The first recall was due to Listeria monocytogenes—a pathogen responsible for an often fatal illness when afflicting the elderly—and the second from two Salmonella serotypes, less lethal but more common. Consumers sought greater information on the more dangerous risk caused by a lesser known pathogen (Listeria) compared with the 2012 Salmonella-related recall. Cantaloupe queries spiked in September 2011 along with Listeria searches—a term not often searched during 2004-2014, except for September 2011 and several months following. Salmonella searches in response to FDA’s 2012 warnings were less numerous. This chart appears in the ERS report, How Much Does It Matter How Sick You Get? Consumers’ Response to Foodborne Disease Outbreaks of Different Severities, released on August 27, 2015.

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