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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

ABSTRACT:  A focus group with an educational component was used to help initiate a new research hypothesis. Early-stage development of a new tamper-evident invention was improved with input from a consumer focus group. The focus group comprised consumers who were shown several tamper-evident devices, including a new color-changing cap under active development. We found that consumers understood tamper-evident food packaging and recognized when devices were triggered. Most said that they always checked tamper-evident food packaging but further query revealed that they only did this for certain products. Consumers were ambivalent about paying more for foods protected by tamper-evident devices, including the color-changing one. None rejected the color-changing device but some recommended changes that would improve the invention. Some mentioned that new devices are unnecessary because current technology is effective in keeping food safe. An educational session conducted in conjunction with the focus group sessions showed that some peoples' initial negative attitude changed to positive support for new color-changing devices after learning about food security concerns. We found that a focus group was useful for shaping academic research and identifying the most practical outcomes. A focus group provided a unique interactive assessment of consumers' understanding of the usefulness and critical research needs in developing a tamper-evident device.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

Focus group methodology is effective at gathering rich, in-depth accounts of people's thinking and experiences. Focus group data have been widely published in the areas of health and occupational therapy but to a much lesser extent in the area of food technology (Silk and others 2005; Mireaux and others 2007; Meinert and others 2008). Although the food industry has used focus groups to optimize products, the literature reports little use of focus groups to study consumers' acceptance and experiences with new technologies.

Focus group methodology is ideal for learning about consumer perceptions of new technologies. Identifying consumer perceptions about a technology early in the development stages is sensible as it saves time and resources and could alert researchers to any resistance to the new product. This study explored the use of focus groups to guide the development of a new tamper-evident packaging technology at its early conceptual stage so that appropriate changes to the device could be made and an understanding of consumer's experiences with tamper-evident devices could be obtained.

Relatively few cases of consumer product tampering have occurred since the Tylenol™ debacle of 1980. Subsequently, consumers are not oversensitized about tamper-evident devices and do not select packaged foods based on their presence. The terrorist attack of 9/11 refocused concerns about intentional contamination and its impact on the safety of the food supply (Bledsoe and Rasco 2002). In July 2004, authorities found traces of ricin, a deadly poison, in 2 jars of baby food in southern California (Pollack 2004). Investigations by the police discovered that the tamper-evident devices on the jars were compromised without detection. This incident highlights the need for improvements in tamper-evident technology for food packaging.

Added security devices on food packaging may be insufficient for comprehensive protection of consumers from intentional contamination. Consumer education about the purpose of these devices, how they may use them, and willingness to buy food packaged with improved security devices are all important components of a comprehensive tamper-evident strategy. Scant published literature is available on how educated consumers are about tamper-evident packaging devices. Improved consumer protection may result if educators incorporate tamper-evident packaging technology into academic curricula and researchers optimize the efficiency of tamper devices based on consumer needs as determined from focus groups. In this study, the focus group was an important part of a strategy to educate, develop, and deploy safer packaging.

The objectives of this study were to (1) use focus groups as a means to guide initial stages of development of a recently patented technology, (2) assess consumer understanding and experiences with tamper-evident devices on food packaging, and (3) optimize a color-changing tamper-evident device using the focus group method.

Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

Twelve focus group sessions were convened at 6 separate locations in the Columbus, Ohio, and the Raleigh, N.C., areas between November 2006 and December 2006 using procedures outlined by Krueger and Casey (2000). All participants were recruited by county Extension Agents attached to the Family and Consumer Sciences Unit, and their local contacts. The Extension Agents were asked to recruit female participants who were English speakers between 19 and 65 y of age because this population group is likely responsible for most food preparation and would have experience with or perceptions about tamper-evident devices. Participants who agreed to participate were given information about the purpose of the study either by phone or by mail and received a reminder call the day before the focus group meeting. Each participant earned a $50 gift certificate on successful completion of a focus group session.

All 12 sessions were held at county Cooperative Extension Centers in North Carolina or in Ohio. A total of 130 females participated in the study (Table 1). Each session averaged 11 participants (range = 10 to 12), was 45 to 90 min in length and was moderated by the same project team member using a prepared script. The questions were optimized based on feedback from the first 2 sessions. Each of the remaining 10 sessions followed the same format with identical questions (Table 2).

Table 1—.  Demographic profile of focus group participants.
 Percentage (number)
  1. N = 130.

Age
 19 to 30 3% (4) 
 31 to 4529% (38)
 46+58% (76)
 No response 9% (12)
Race
 White72% (94)
 Black/African American17% (22)
 American Indian/Alaska Native1% (1)
 Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Island1% (1)
 Hispanic2% (3)
 Asian0
 No response7% (9)
Education
 Less than high school1% (1)
 High school/GED15% (20)
 Some college23% (30)
 College degree39% (51)
 Graduate school/advanced degree22% (28)
Food preparation
 Percentage of grocery shopping in household92 ± 16
 Percentage of cooking in household86 ± 20
Table 2—.  Focus group session questions.
INTRODUCTION
 Q1Tell us your name and what is your favorite food?
 Q2Have you ever heard the term “tamper-evident packaging device?” If yes, what is it?
LEAD IN QUESTION
 Q3Why do you think these devices are on food packages? Explain your answers.
 Q4Do you personally believe that it is important to you to have this device on a food package? Why?
PERSONAL EXPERIENCE WITH TAMPER-PROOF PACKAGING
 Q5Raise your hand if you usually check to see if a tamper-evident device is intact on a package of food before buying it. On what products do you check? Why?
 Q6Raise your hand if you usually check to see if a tamper-evident device is intact on a package of food before using it. On what products do you check? Explain.
 Q7I am going to show you a series of products. After I show them to you I want you to tell me how you would know if they have been opened.
Snap cap with horizontal pull tab
Plastic breakable cap
Sports cap
Device with screw cap
Roll on aluminum cap
Film wrapper
Heat shrink band
Can with inner seal
Vacuum generated dimple twist off
Blister pack
Bubble packs
Bottle mouth inner seals
Foil, paper, or plastic pouch
Tape seals
Sealed metal or plastic tube
Cardboard cartons
 Q8Do you believe that it is easy for most people to tell if a product has been opened? Explain.
 Q9Have you ever eaten a food taken from a package in which the tamper-evident device was not intact? If yes, what food? Why?
WILLINGNESS TO PAY
 Q10If one food has a tamper-evident device and a similar food does not, which one would you buy? Explain your answer.
 Q11If two packaged foods that are similar have tamper-evident devices and one costs more, which one would you buy? Explain your answer.
OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY PROTOTYPE
 Q12Do you believe this device would catch your attention? Explain.
 Q13Would you be willing to pay more for a food with this feature? Explain.
 Q14Would you change the design? If yes, what would you do?
CONCLUSION
 Q15Do you have any other thoughts or comments that you would like to share with us about tamper-evident devices? Have we missed anything?

The first 2 questions (Q1 and Q2) were designed to get the participants to demonstrate their knowledge about tamper-evident devices. The legal definition was simplified and explained to the participants so that all would have a clear understanding of what constituted a tamper-evident device. The simplified definition used was, “Something that is on a package that lets you know if tampering has occurred.” Two lead-in questions (Q3 and Q4) focused on the participants' general perceptions about tamper-evident devices. Q5 to Q9 solicited information about the participants' personal experience with tamper-evident packaging devices. Sixteen (16) examples of different types of tamper-evident devices were shown to the participants to demonstrate how different types of devices are triggered. This also encouraged the participants to begin sharing their concerns or ideas about these devices. Q10 to Q11 focused on the willingness of the participants to pay more for packages on which these devices are installed. The final 3 questions (Q12 to Q14) were framed to get feedback about a prototype color-changing tamper-evident device.

The prototype color-changing device was shown to the participants and its function described so they could envision how it works. When the device is applied to a bottle or jar, it is automatically activated and remains a constant white color. When the container is opened, this white color irreversibly changes to red. A final question (Q15) determined if there were any additional issues not raised during the sessions that the focus group participants felt were important for discussion.

All sessions were audiotaped and the tapes transcribed. The transcripts were later read and all general themes and patterns were noted. The benefits of this approach compared to simple coding of the data are that each transcript is considered as a whole rather than a set of discrete responses, and it allowed the analyst to re-experience the group, body language, and tone of the discussion. The data were initially organized according to the nature of the questions asked (Krueger and Casey 2000). Responses to each question were examined across the 12 groups and sorted to identify if there were differences and unique responses across the different groups.

Results and Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

The focus group method allowed a more thorough investigation of the participants' understanding and prior experiences with tamper-evident food packaging. This could not have been accomplished with simple questionnaire items. During focus group sessions, participants can get caught up in the spirit of group discussion and can reveal more than they would in the more formal interview setting or while responding to a survey questionnaire. Presented here is the analysis of participants' understanding and experiences with tamper-evident devices, including the color-changing prototype cap. The focus group results were exploratory, descriptive in nature, and are without statistical analysis. Even so, these focus group data are valuable as they allowed us to gain insight about consumers' understanding and perceptions about a specific product. When asked to define the term “tamper-evident device,” all participants who responded demonstrated familiarity with these devices. Many associated it with Tylenol™ and this appeared to be the benchmark for their understanding about tamper-evident devices. While the participants correctly defined a tamper-evident device, their responses did not solely focus on safety and security, the primary function of these devices. The 2 purposes cited were (1) to keep food safe and (2) to prevent the opening and entry of foreign objects into the package.

When shown the 16 different types of tamper-evident devices and asked how they would determine if these devices were triggered, several recurrent themes emerged. All responses about triggering were technically correct. It thus appeared that the participants had the ability to correctly identify a tampered package. However, it was evident that many were not using this knowledge at a point of sale on all occasions. Again, this was not unexpected as knowledge does not always produce behavior change in and of itself, but knowledge is a prerequisite to behavior change.

When asked if they actively checked to see if a tamper-evident device had been triggered while the package was still at the grocery store, most said “yes.” However, subsequent discussions revealed that most were not really doing so with all product types at all times. The participants said that they were more likely to check liquids or semisolids, such as milk, salad dressing, and baby foods. When asked why they checked these foods, the participants said that these products were perishable and could spoil if opened. Not surprisingly, several participants expressed concern about baby foods because they believed that infants and toddlers were at a higher risk for illnesses when compared with adults.

Some of the participants said that they do not check to see if a tamper-evident device was intact while in the store, particularly if the device is normally hidden by an outer cap on the package. An example of this is shown in Figure 1. This figure shows that the outer cover on the can must be removed before the tamper-evident device could be seen. In this case, the participants reported that removing the outer cover on the can to check the status of the device would arouse suspicion on the part of other customers or store employees. A few who said that they always checked to see if the device is intact at the grocery store, said they did so because of past bad experiences. In such cases, they said that they had to return a product to the grocery store and this took away from their valuable time. On the other hand, a shortage of time was another common reason expressed by some for not checking to see if a tamper-evident device was in place or triggered while the package was still on the grocery shelf. These participants also reported that if their children were with them in the grocery store, they would be less likely to check the status of a device but would wait until they got home before examining the package.

image

Figure 1—. A package with an outer closure removed to reveal an inner tamper-evident seal.

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After purchasing a product and taking it home, many participants indicated that they “always checked” the integrity of the tamper-evident device before using or eating the packaged food. Checking meant a visual observation, such as looking for the plastic ring or band, listening for a popping noise when opening a jar, or observing the presence of a vacuum dimple in the liner of an unopened package as shown in Figure 2, 3, and 4, respectively. When probed, some said that they would still use a product even if the tamper-evident device was broken, triggered, or missing. They said that they would do so if the food was urgently needed for a recipe, for example. Some elaborated by saying that they would use pickles, for example, without the plastic ring on the jar because they thought it might have accidentally come off or it might not have been initially installed. However, the majority said that they would not use a product without the device being intact because this indicated that spoilage of the product had begun. Again, spoilage was confused with the concept of food safety.

image

Figure 2—. Package with a breakable tamper-evident band.

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image

Figure 3—. Packages with a pop-up tamper-evident closure in the unopened position (A) and in the opened position (B).

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image

Figure 4—. Package with a pop-up (vacuum sealed) tamper-evident liner.

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For some participants it was apparent that their initial stance to never eat food from a package in which the tamper-evident device was triggered was not accurate. The same participants later reported that their decision to consume a given food product would depend on the type of food. Citing an example, the participants reported that if they had a strong craving for a particular food item, such as chocolate, but the only one available on the grocery shelf had its tamper-evident device triggered, they would most likely still consume the product. The participants also expressed concern as to why all bottled products do not have a shrink band, for example. They also sought more consistency in tamper-evident devices used by the packaging industry because that would help them better identify a triggered or compromised one.

Willingness to pay more

Cost is viewed as one of the greatest challenges to the use of smart packaging such as the color-changing tamper-evident packaging presented in this article. Garcia-Arca and others (2006), also reported that high cost poses a significant limitation for the widespread acceptance of these types of products so it is important to determine consumer willingness to pay. Assessing whether an individual is willing to pay more for the color-changing device was complex because at the time of this study, the exact increase in cost was not known. In general, participants provided mixed responses about their willingness to pay more for a packaged product fitted with a color-changing tamper-evident device. The responses that were given were: (1) If 2 similar products were the same price, then some participants said that they would buy the one with the tamper-evident device; (2) However, if there were 2 different types of devices—such as a plastic ring and the color-changing device—some said that they would buy the brand that they always do or the cheaper one; (3) Some said they would pay a few cents more for the color-changing device but most were not firm in their commitment to pay more.

A survey, by the Food Safety Policy Center at Michigan State Univ. reported that 84% of respondents said that they would be willing to add $270 a year to their food bill, the equivalent of paying 5% more if foodborne diseases could be reduced by 50% (ElAmin 2006). The results from ElAmin (2006) study were contradictory to the focus group findings in our study since the participants generally did not firmly commit to paying more for food packaged in the color changing device. This illustrated the need for educators to better communicate the concept of security and food safety since this could enhance the understanding of consumers about the need for improved packaging devices, even if it increased the cost.

Color-changing device

Overwhelmingly, the participants expressed a strong liking for the concept of the color-changing device. They said that it was easy to recognize. However, some felt that currently used devices were performing as expected, so they were not sure why a new device was being created. From the responses received, a lack of full knowledge about the real benefits the color-changing device was evident.

All groups had suggestions for improvement to the device. Most participants believed that it would be easier for consumers to understand the color-changing device if they were trained to properly identify its features. They suggested using point-of-purchase signage to help consumers properly interpret a triggered device. It was clear from all groups that they felt that the colored parts of the color-changing cap should be larger in size. Some suggested putting a symbol on it, such as an “x” or a line with a circle through it so that consumers would be less likely to confuse the changing color with a marketing design.

Nearly every group expressed concern about the usability of the color-changing device by consumers who are color-blind or who are visually impaired. Alternative methods to help these population groups would be needed if the color-changing device is to be useful to all segments of the population.

To ensure that all ideas were captured, a final open-ended question sought additional information. A common theme expressed by most of the focus group participants was a belief that some types of packages are difficult to open, especially for the elderly and those who have arthritic joints. A review by Sherman (1985) concluded that unless existing tamper-evident packaging is modified, it is likely that many of the 26 million older people in the United States might find these devices “elder-resistant.” This Sherman (1985) report suggested ongoing testing of package closures to assure that adequate accessibility to the product is ensured. It appeared that some participants felt that this issue has still not been fully addressed by packaging closure manufacturers. To this very point, a participant said: “I have very weak hands so I find a lot of time I struggle with them [the tamper-evident devices], and I can't imagine elderly people who have arthritis and different disabilities– how [do] they cope with this because a lot of times I end up getting the assistance of my husband or another person to open this, and it's not an easy thing for me.”

At the end of each focus group discussion, a 10- to 15-min educational session was conducted. During these sessions, explanations of how the color-changing device was designed and the importance of tamper-evident devices were given. Questions about the device were encouraged and accurate answers given by the educators. As a result of these education sessions, some participants changed their responses when explaining the need for tamper-evident devices. Thus, the need for consumer education about the function of tamper-evident devices became evident. An observation of the responses provided by the participants indicated that the knowledge they gained about tamper-evident devices helped them to better understand the need for the color-changing one. From this educational session, we note that consumer education may be an important step in the commercialization of a color-changing device. This observation is supported by Greenberg (1996), who reported that consumer education about tamper-evident devices and general consciousness of the safety features on packages are essential to the tamper-evident packaging program. Table 3 shows the recurrent themes expressed by the participants during each session of the focus group meetings and select quotes from them (the attendees). This is a well-recognized method for analyzing focus group data (deMarrais and Lapan 2004)

Table 3—.  Recurrent focus group themes: consumer understanding and experiences with tamper-evident devices (TED) and their reactions to the color-changing device.
Recurrent themeFocus group participant quotes
  1. N = 130.

The purpose of TED
TED is a reaction to a Tylenol™ scare.Years ago there was a big deal about the Tylenol and the fact they thought things were being added to this and so forth I think really got the whole thing started.”
I remember back when there was that Tylenol scare just safety from people getting into packages and putting things that don't belong there.”
TED prevent opening of package or injection of foreign objects.No one has touched my food or anything.”
Make sure no has injected any kind of drugs or anything that would harm you.”
Prevent tasting and smelling.”
TED provide food safety.To protect the food from getting germs inside and it's going to be harmful for people.”
Food safety and to keep out bacteria.”
Checking TED
Check liquid or semisolid food TED as these are perishable.Milk so it's not spoiled.”
I wouldn't want it (mayonnaise) to be a loose lid if I were not going to refrigerate it immediately. It would spoil.”
I think liquids are important because it's very easy to tamper with plastic.”
Check TED in store unless hidden by outer cap or short on time.I feel funny about opening something with an outer lid or anything in the grocery store.”
Check means looking or listening.A quick visual. Check and go.”
I don't look I listen. So if is doesn't “shh” then I think something is wrong with it and I won't drink it.”
No check if I want or need the food.If there were more I would choose the one that is intact but if it's the last one and I needed it I would probably take the chance.”
If I needed a chocolate fix and that was the last one I would take my chance.”
Willingness to pay for TED
Buy foods based on brand or price, not based on TED.All other things being equal I would look at price and/or brand loyalty.”
Not committed to paying more for a food with a TED.I would say my willingness would be percentage wise. If it's going to add 10% I'd probably be hesitant. If it added 2%, those are somewhat random numbers but generally that is how I look at it.”
A few pennies, but at what point would the pennies become an issue I don't know.”
Reactions to the color-changing TED
Currently use TED working as expected so why develop new device?Why is it necessary to go to that next level? Are we having problems with our current situation with tamper resistance?”
Changes to color-changing TED include color and size of indicator.I would like the idea of it being solid red because you equate with a stop sign.”
If I was going to redesign that I would make that little black spot smaller and the red redder and bigger.”
Consider older adults and the visually impaired when developing TED.I think seniors would have trouble seeing that so I agree it needs to be brighter and more of it.”
The color blind folks who can't tell the color having something written on it would be a great benefit I think.”

These exploratory focus group findings represent a unique form of research input. A traditional question and answer paper or online survey might provide statistically verifiable findings, but the traditional survey can miss key concepts. These surveys are static instruments that lack interactivity, thus unable to address questions or uncertainties. This focus group method provided interactivity as an independent device or a useful prequel to a survey that employs qualitative data collection methods. We found that probing in a focus group setting was needed to understand consumer comprehension and experiences with tamper-evident devices. While qualitative methods have limitations, such as small sample sizes and semistructured questions, these findings provide specific guidance for researchers and food safety educators about practical improvements that should be added to tamper-evident devices.

Conclusions

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

This study shows that the focus group is a useful tool for optimization of a packaging design. Our participants were able to determine when a tamper-evident device is triggered. Although the participants claimed that they always checked if a tamper-evident device was intact on a food package, further probing indicated that they did not do this consistently, or they only did so for certain products. No participant objected to the color-changing device but some recommended changes, such as increasing the size of the color-changing surface and the inclusion of a symbol instead of just a colored circle. Within all of the focus groups, one or more participants stated that they needed additional information about how to interpret the color-changing device. Some participants were not convinced that a new device was needed as they felt that currently available devices were effective at keeping food safe.

The educational session provided at the end of each focus group discussion highlighted the value of additional consumer learning about the purpose of tamper-evident devices. Some participants changed their responses about the need for a color-changing device after many of the security concerns relating to packaged foods were explained. These findings provided evidence for the need to further catalog consumer perceptions and to better educate consumers on how to identify issues relating to tamper-evident devices.

Focus group findings may be valuable to researchers in early-stage product development. Focus group interactions may be valuable to educators in delivering scientific information in an interactive and compelling way. The focus group may help food safety educators affect consumer behaviors. It also helps the educators better understand how consumers perceive technology. Consumer education is often lacking in the product development cycle. Education about the technology and optimization of use through focus groups can help consumer acceptance and new product success.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References

This study was funded by the Ag Bioscience Initiative of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center and Ohio State Univ. Extension. The authors would like to extend appreciation to the 6 Extension Agents (Lisa Childers, Susan Condlin, Deborah Stroud, Susan Shockey, Marge Wolford, and Shari Gallup) in the Family and Consumer Sciences Dept., working in North Carolina and Ohio.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgments
  8. References