(April 5) For the first time since a foodborne illness outbreak sent shock waves throughout the produce industry, consumer confidence in the integrity of fresh fruits and vegetables appears to be rebounding.

According to a March 5-7 telephone survey conducted for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., by Opinion Dynamics Corp., roughly one-third of consumers said they have the highest confidence in the overall safety of fresh produce, compared to 25% in September, in the immediate aftermath of an E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach.

Seventy-one percent of respondents said their fresh produce purchases had held steady or increased compared with the same time in 2006, and 85% said they plan to maintain or increase their purchases this year.

Processing facilities fielded much of the blame on the recent outbreaks, but respondents spread fault across the supply system.

When asked to assign blame on a scale ranging from “very responsible” to “not responsible at all,” 55% of respondents said processing facilities were very responsible. Thirty percent said the facilities were somewhat responsible.

Separately asked to rate growers’ role in the outbreaks, 40% described them as very responsible and 36%, said they were somewhat responsible. Distributors’ fault range was 26% for “very responsible” and 41% for “somewhat responsible. In ranking culpability of restaurants, retailers and transportation companies, the highest response rate was in the “somewhat responsible” category.

The poll’s results are encouraging but only a milepost in regaining consumer confidence, said Bryan Silbermann, PMA president.

“Research that we’ve done elsewhere that’s looked at how the public has responded to steps taken by industry and government has actually been quite favorable,” Silbermann said.

Industry-led initiatives, such as a push for standards for leafy greens in California, helped to minimize the fallout of recent outbreaks. The next logical step, he said, is setting federal standards.