NEWARK, Del. — Consumer confidence in produce safety improved in March, marking the first widespread upswing in confidence since September 2006, when a national E. coli outbreak devastated the fresh spinach industry, according to recent surveys by the Produce Marketing Association, based here.
It's unfortunate the way the industry has been characterized due to the outbreaks, said Lorna Christie, senior vice president of industry products and services, PMA.
“We're made to appear as if food safety started on Sept. 14 of last year, and that is absolutely not the case,” Christie told SN.
“It's part of our tradition and part of our commitment to provide consumers with safe and healthy experiences, but we also recognize, no matter how tragic what happened is, that there's an opportunity to communicate more effectively with our consumers about our commitment to food safety.”
Out of 1,000 primary household shoppers who participated in the survey, 36% expressed some overall concern about the safety of fresh leafy green produce. Of that 36%, more than half cited outbreaks as cause for their concern. However, 63% of respondents said they had no “overall concerns” about fresh leafy green produce.
“I think what the survey clearly told us is that there is still a substantial portion of the population that continues to purchase leafy greens, that they understand the industry's commitment to providing safe food, and that they choose to make sure that their children and families can actually take advantage of the health benefits of leafy green products,” said Christie.
“It also tells us that we need to do a better job of communicating to consumers to ensure that [they know] our products are safe.”
Christie told SN that the respect consumers seem to have for family farmers is very important, and having farmers speak about their commitment to food safety is one way marketing efforts can help regain consumer confidence. “The history of the modern produce industry really is the history of the farmer,” she said.
“I think the real thing we want to leave the industry with from that survey is the amazing confidence rating that the American consumers have given our farmers,” she added, noting that “safety isn't about a business model, it's part of their livelihood.”
“I think with that type of foundation, we always have to keep that in the back of our minds as we communicate to consumers and as we communicate to each other about the industry's commitment to food safety.”
Retailers should look at ways of rebuilding consumer confidence because the outbreaks have impacted more than just leafy greens, Christie said, and working with local farmers is one way.
“I would use the same communication strategies that we use to let the consumer know that locally grown produce is now on the retailers' stands,” she said.
Retailers can also reinforce their commitment to buy from companies that have the highest food safety standards that are based on the best science available, said Christie.
Although 54% of the polled consumers reported that their produce purchases are at the same level as last year, 19% said their purchases have increased over the same period and 85% plan to maintain or increase their purchases this year. Still, 41% said they currently avoid certain types of fresh fruits and vegetables, predominately leafy greens and specifically spinach, though other products are suffering by association. Retail spinach sales are down 54%, and estimates have bagged lettuce sales down by 6% to 8%, according to a recent report from the Los Angeles Times.
In response to the ongoing debate of who should be held responsible for ensuring the safety of produce, 39% of respondents felt that the produce industry should take the lead in ensuring the safety of the nation's fresh produce supply, and 25% felt that federal and state regulators should. Consumers also cited higher safety and sanitation standards and better quality control, among others, as steps to improving food safety.
Christie said she believes food safety is a shared responsibility.
“It certainly begins at the farm level, but it's part of the entire supply chain's responsibility to ensure from the time that it's grown on the farm and leaves the farm, to the time that it's either put on the retailer shelves or put on a menu in a food-service restaurant, that everyone understands their responsibility to ensuring that the consumer who eats those products has a safe and healthy eating experience every bite, every time,” she said.