By Jim Offner

The Packer

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 of Newark, Del., by Opinion Dynamics Corp., roughly one-third of consumers say they have the highest confidence in the overall safety of fresh produce, compared to 25 percent in September, in the immediate aftermath of an E. coli outbreak linked to fresh spinach.

Seventy-one percent of respondents say their fresh produce purchases had held steady or increased compared with the same time in 2006, and 85 percent say 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 percent of respondents say processing facilities were very responsible. Thirty percent say the facilities were somewhat responsible.

Separately asked to rate growers' role in the outbreaks, 40 percent describe them as very responsible and 36 percent say they were somewhat responsible. Distributors' fault range was 26 percent for "very responsible" and 41 percent for "somewhat responsible." In ranking culpability of restaurants, retailers and transportation companies, the highest response rate was in the "somewhat responsible" category.

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

"Research that we've done elsewhere thatss looked at how the public has responded to steps taken by industry and government has actually been quite favorable," Silbermann says.

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 says, is setting federal standards.

The Packer is a sister publication of The Grower.