WASHINGTON (July 18) - Troubled by the tainted tomato scare, nearly
half of Americans are concerned they may get sick from eating
contaminated food and are avoiding items they normally would buy,
an Associated Press-Ipsos poll has found.
Although three in four remain confident about the overall safety
of foods, the poll found that consumers overwhelmingly support
setting up a tracing system for produce in the wake of the
salmonella outbreak first linked to tomatoes and, now, hot peppers.
Eighty-six percent said produce should be labeled so it can be
tracked through layers of processors, packers and shippers, all the
way back to the farm. The lack of such a system frustrated disease
detectives working on the salmonella outbreak. Although federal
officials lifted the tomato warning Thursday, the cause of the
outbreak remains unknown.
The poll found that 80 percent of Americans said they would
support new federal standards for fresh produce. Meat and poultry
have long been subject to enforceable federal safeguards, but
fruits and vegetables are not, although produce increasingly is
being implicated in outbreaks.
Christy Taylor, a first-grade teacher from Sacramento, Calif.,
said she has all but given up on supermarket produce and is buying
most of her fresh fruits and vegetables at the local farmers'
"I see the same farmers every single week," said Taylor, 30,
the mother of 2-year-old twin girls. "You meet the people and you
see where the (produce) is coming from."
Her twins love tomatoes, she said, and chomp on them as if they
were apples. But until the mystery of the tainted tomatoes is
solved, "I feel a little bit more comfortable, a little more safe,
doing the local farmers' market," Taylor said.
In addition to the salmonella outbreak, this year has seen the
largest ground beef recall in history, raising consumer concerns
reflected in the poll.
Forty-six percent said they were worried they might get sick
from eating contaminated food and that they have avoided foods
because of safety warnings that they normally would have purchased.
Twenty-nine percent have thrown out food earlier than usual and 14
percent have returned food to the store.
Such a level of uneasiness among consumers is "very
significant," said Michael R. Taylor, a former senior federal food
safety official who now teaches at George Washington University.
"When you have almost half the population avoiding certain
foods because of safety concerns, that's very significant from the
standpoint of economic impact for the people selling the food, and
from the standpoint of peace of mind for consumers," said Taylor.
Tomato growers say they have lost more than $100 million as a
result of the current salmonella outbreak, which has sickened more
than 1,200 people in 42 states since April.
The poll also found gender, racial and economic gaps on
attitudes about food safety. Women, who do most of the shopping,
were more concerned than men. For example, 39 percent of men said
they were "very confident" that the food they buy is safe, but
only 23 percent of women said they felt that way. However, men and
women agreed on the need for better federal oversight.
"We've got to protect our food supply," said Stephan Weiss,
58, of West Linn, Ore., who runs a small engraving and embroidery
business. "And if more inspectors are going to prevent people from
getting sick and dying, then it's worth it."
People with lower incomes were less confident in food safety, as
were minorities. Nearly half of Hispanics had little or no
confidence in the safety of the food they buy.
In Congress, a leading advocate of food safety reforms said the
industry would do well to listen to consumers on the need for
"We live in an age of technology where you can bar-code a
banana," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "We've got to work this
through with the industry and come up with something that's
reasonable. The more confidence consumers have, the more goods they
While the produce industry agrees that federal standards for
preventing contamination are necessary, there is no consensus on a
mandatory tracing system. Cost is a concern, especially for smaller
The poll also found that 56 percent of consumers do not believe
the government has enough inspectors to scrutinize food imports. If
more are needed for imports and domestic produce, 70 percent said
the cost should be covered through fees on industry. That echoes a
proposal by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House
Energy and Commerce Committee.
The telephone poll of 1,000 adults was conducted July 10-14 and
has a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points
for the overall sample.
Associated Press polling director Michael Mokrzycki and AP
writer Christine Simmons contributed to this report.