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University develops panel for food research


April 30, 2008
By University of Guelph

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Apr. 30, 2008, Guelph, Ont. – A new food panel at the University of Guelph will help researchers track changes in Canadian’s eating habits.

Apr. 30, 2008, Guelph, Ont. – Researchers will be able to accurately track changes in Canadian's eating habits and measure consumer responses to issues like food scares, thanks to professors at the University of Guelph .

They have developed the Guelph Food Panel, the first large-scale panel consumer group dedicated to food and research. Made of up 2,000 people, it will allow researchers to survey participants with 24-hour's notice and to assess any changes in their response over time.

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"There is no other instrument like this in Canada," said Dr. John Cranfield, a professor in the department of food, agricultural and resource economics. "We can see how people's concerns and perceptions about food and their consumption patterns change over time. We can also get immediate consumer responses to food scares, such as whether people stopped eating spinach after some brands were found to be tainted with E. coli."

Previous methods provided only a snapshot of information because researchers were surveying a certain group of people at a certain time, Cranfield added.

With the panel, members can be surveyed on the same topic years apart to see how their views have changed and can also give immediate responses to any food crisis that might occur.

"If there is a food scare tonight, we can send them a survey within 24 hours," said Dr. Spencer Henson, who help developed the panel with Dr. Cranfield and post-doctoral research associate Dr. Oliver Masakure. "This system allows us to have our finger on the pulse of Canadians with respect to food."

Panel members will be sent half a dozen online surveys a year on topics relevant to Canada's food system.

The panel is made up of people from the Guelph area, but they were recruited based on age, gender and level of education to ensure the group is representative of the Canadian population, said Dr. Henson.

"This will allow us to find information not only on the Guelph population, but Ontario and Canada," he said.

Partly funded by the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the Advanced Food Materials Network , the panel will be used by researchers to examine consumers' perceptions of the food system and the level of confidence that exists from local farms to imported food to grocery chains.

Researchers will also be looking at consumers' responsiveness to new foods, their diet and whether they're trying to eat healthier, what types of food consumers believe to be healthier and perceived obstacles to healthy eating.

As consumers become more informed about food issues, it's important for researchers to assess how this is affecting what they're buying, said Dr. Cranfield.

"With this information, we can inform the food system and the government about the views of Canadians towards food," he said. "Our intent with this research is to find ways of making the food system work better."

Researchers are still accepting panel members. Anyone interested can send e-mail to foodpanel@uoguelph.ca .