(June 25, 4:02 p.m.) Even with the number of major recalls in recent years, many U.S. consumers remain confident in domestically produced food, including fresh produce, a recent study suggests.

However, half of consumers are wary of imported food and unsure about the government’s food inspection system, and recalls tend to have a lasting affect on purchasing habits.

These findings are based on results from a study conducted between May 12 and June 1 by a research group at the Harvard School of Public Health, focusing on public and biological security, said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis at Harvard.

The purpose of the nationwide survey — administered before the tomato salmonella outbreak — was to understand Americans’ perception of food threats to the public, particularly with the number of recalls throughout the last decade, Blendon said.

The survey, which polled 1,500 people, concluded 37% of the U.S. population believed U.S.-produced food was very safe, and 58% believed it was somewhat safe while only 4% regarded it as unsafe. Only 6% said food from Canada was unsafe.

On the other hand, 47% considered food from Mexico unsafe and 56% had safety reservations about food from China.

“The fact that we’re moving toward more of a global food supply has raised peoples’ anxiety about the oversight,” Blendon said. “It’s not only with the government … there also are concerns about restaurants and food suppliers having a higher level of care. I think oversight also needs to be greater by producers and restaurants.”

Survey results indicate recalls largely influence supermarket decisions, as 74% of consumers specifically remembered the spinach recall, in addition to the 82% that remembered the ground beef recall and 55% that remembered the peanut butter recall. Of those who remembered one of three recalls, 80% avoided eating the recalled food, 52% contacted friends or relatives to make sure they were aware of the recalls and 39% sought additional information about the recall.

Also, 62% said they knew what salmonella and E. coli were, and 37% feared they or a family member might become ill within the next year from the infections. Had this study been conducted in the wake of the tomato salmonella outbreak, those numbers might be higher, Blendon said.

“People pay a lot of attention to past recalls,” Blendon said. “I think, given the attention that has been focused on salmonella and tomatoes, concern would have been higher after the fact because people are more concerned after a recall.”

Produce among trustworthy fresh foods

Nevertheless, it appears consumers still trust the produce supply chain more than other food segments, Blendon said.

Only 39% of Americans had some or very little confidence in produce growers’ ability to keep product safe, which is considerably lower than the 58% that had some or very little confidence in meat producers.

Additionally, 36% considered raw fruits and vegetables to be somewhat risky, in contrast to the 82% that found sushi or raw fish somewhat risky and the 80% that believed the same about hamburger prepared rare or medium rare.

“I think consumers count in their minds the number of threats over the years and perceive the threats to be larger in meat and seafood,” Blendon said.

Moving forward, Blendon said he believes more consumers will be requesting country-of-origin labels on food, and there will be a strengthened demand for the Food & Drug Administration to bulk up its inspection process and provide the public with more immediate information following an outbreak.

According to the survey, 53% of those polled looked for information about product origin, and 52% said they had some or very little confidence in the government’s food inspection system, Blendon said.

“I think there’ll be more pressure for FDA to inspect a larger share of things coming in the country and their ability to follow up,” Blendon said.

Weak confidence in restaurants

According to the study, the majority of consumers are unsure about restaurant food, considering:

  • 76% of those polled said buffet restaurants were somewhat risky, 74% considered salad bars somewhat risky and 72% viewed fast-food restaurants the same;

  • 55% have some or very little confidence in restaurants’ ability to keep food safe, compared to the 41% that possess some or very little confidence in grocery stores’ ability to keep food safe; and

  • of the 59% who have read restaurant inspection notices in newspapers, 88% said they avoid restaurants cited for violations.
Consumer confidence in food varies, study shows