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NEWARK, Del. - Consumer confidence in produce safety improved in March for the first time after a series of food-borne illness outbreaks hit the fresh fruit and vegetable industry last fall, according to new consumer research from the Produce Marketing Association based here.
The trade group's research also indicates that while consumers believe the outbreaks are primarily the responsibility of processing facilities, they also look to the entire industry supply chain for solutions and guidance.
"It is clear that consumers expect our industry to safeguard their health," said PMA president Bryan Silbermann.
The research involved a telephone survey of 1,000 primary shoppers conducted in early March for PMA by Opinion Dynamics Corp.
About one-third of consumers surveyed said they have the highest confidence in the overall safety of fresh produce, compared to 25 percent in February 2007 after a deadly food-borne illness outbreak triggered a nationwide recall of fresh spinach.
A majority (71 percent) of these consumers told PMA their fresh produce purchases have held steady or increased compared to last year, and 85 percent said they plan to maintain or increase their purchases this year.
However, two-thirds of consumers said they have less than the highest confidence in overall produce safety, and 17 percent reported votes of no confidence. Meanwhile, 41 percent of consumers said they avoiding certain types of fresh fruits and vegetables, predominantly leafy greens and specifically spinach, though other products are suffering by association.
"The data paint a picture that is still less than rosy, and makes clear that industry-wide change is needed," added Silbermann.
The marketplace impact is definite; The Los Angeles Times recently reported that retail spinach sales are down 54 percent, and estimates have bagged lettuce sales down by 6-8 percent.
"When asked who was responsible for the recent food safety problems, consumers put growers and processors squarely at the top of the list and ahead of regulators," said Silbermann. "They also told us they think farmers are the most credible spokespersons on the subject. Consumers are looking to us to make the situation right and restore their confidence."
PMA is allocating $2.75 million to support new produce safety efforts, including scientific research to close knowledge gaps about contamination sources and to develop preventive protocols and solutions. PMA and allied associations have been working together on a comprehensive food safety program that includes research, training and education, verification and consumer education.