A recent survey by the University of Florida shows consumers rank food safety near the top of their list of concerns, with 85 percent of respondents calling it extremely or highly important, trailing only the economy and health care.
But perhaps more significantly, the survey also found a great deal of confusion — and downright misinformation — about the relative safety of different foods.
For example, the survey found that 72 percent of those polled thought that fresh fruit and vegetables were safe while only about 60 percent felt the same way about canned fruits and vegetables.
In fact, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are much safer than unwashed raw produce, according to Doug Archer, associate dean for research for UF/IFAS.
“The number of outbreaks of foodborne illness attributable to fresh produce has grown substantially in the last two decades to the point where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have become very concerned,” Archer said.
The survey also found more Floridians naming growth hormones, additives and preservatives as health risks than bacteria, when in fact, it is bacteria that can fairly quickly cause major foodborne diseases.
“I think findings like this are telling us that, while there are some areas where there is correspondence between what consumers know and the actual facts, there are some significant gaps,” said Tracy Irani, director of the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education, or PIE Center, which led the study.
The online survey, conducted in October, reached 510 Florida residents, all 18 or older. The responses were weighted to balance geographic, age, gender, race and ethnicity data to ensure the information was representative of Florida’s population.
The study found that Floridians are not as concerned about genetically modified food, with fewer than half saying they worried that it would harm the environment or cause health problems.
But 52 percent approve of using genetic modification to help fight citrus greening, a disease that threatens the state’s $9 billion citrus industry.
Currently the only genetically engineered crops are field corn, soybean, cotton, canola, sugar beet, papaya and squash.
Kevin Folta, interim chair of UF’s horticultural sciences department, said the survey shows the need for more education about the benefits of genetically engineered food.
“There has never been a single case of harm to an animal or human eating an estimated 3 trillion meals in the last 17 years, since genetically engineered food became available in the marketplace,” Folta said. “The survey says that we need to be doing more in communicating the science to the public.”