Food health and safety issues topped the list of the most memorable food stories of 2009, according to the seventh annual year-end survey commissioned by Hunter Public Relations, a New York public relations firm specializing in the food and beverage industry.


The biggest story of the year was the issue of food safety. From E. coli in ground beef to salmonella poisoning in nuts, Hunter says, thousands of Americans have been sickened, prompting food recalls of everything from baby food to green onions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 76 million cases of food borne illnesses occur annually in the U.S.; more than 300,000 persons are hospitalized and 5,000 die.


Stories related to the weak economy also played a prominent role in 2009. The second biggest story of the year was the increase in demand at food banks, with food pantries opening their doors to rapidly expanding numbers of hungry Americans. Feeding America, the nation's largest hunger-relief charity, reported that requests for emergency food assistance rose by 30 percent in 2009.


The third biggest story of 2009 was also related to the economy, as Americans sharply curtailed spending on food by dining out less, opting for generic products over brand names and choosing to cook at home more, hurting sales and profits at many food processors, grocery chains and restaurants. A HealthFocus International study indicated that nearly three-quarters of American shoppers showed a higher level of concern about the cost of groceries this year.


The survey also examined the biggest food-related stories of the decade, which the firm says has witnessed a dramatic transformation in the way Americans shop for, eat and think about food.


When Americans were asked to recall the top food stories of the decade, nutritional concerns and food safety garnered the top spots. With the number of obese schoolchildren continuing to grow year after year, childhood obesity became a major national concern. The FTC and the Department of Health and Human Services continue to urge food companies to develop products that are more nutritious and to review and revise their marketing practices. According to the CDC, 16 percent of American children—over 9 million—are now obese.


Americans felt that Mad Cow disease, which first hit the United Kingdom in 1993 and has infected over 189,000 cattle to date, was one of the most significant food stories of the decade. By October 2009, the human strain of the disease had killed 165 people in Britain and 44 elsewhere. Due to concerns that U.S. livestock regulations lack sufficient rigor, 65 nations have implemented restrictions on importing U.S. beef products.


In addition to being the top food story of 2009, food safety was also one of the biggest issues of the decade. Millions of consumers were sickened from E. coli or salmonella poisoning in their foods, and hundreds of worldwide recalls have been issued. The survey found that Americans aged 55 and over were far more likely than other age groups to select food safety as the most significant story of the decade.


Hunter PR enlisted Wakefield, an independent market research firm, to survey 1,000 Americans aged 18 and over via an email invitation and online survey.