By Kimberly Moore Wilmoth
Food safety is near the top of most Floridians’ concerns, behind only the economy and health care, a survey released today by the University of Florida shows.
The survey covered several food-related issues, including public perceptions about food safety, food insecurity and genetically modified foods. It also found knowledge gaps among Floridians, especially in the area of food safety, and detected conflicted feelings among the public about genetically modified foods.
“I think findings like this are telling us that, while there are some areas where there is correspondence between what consumers know and the actual facts, there are some significant gaps,” said Tracy Irani, director of the UF/IFAS Center for Public Issues Education, or PIE Center, which led the study.
The October online survey reached 510 Florida residents, all 18 or older. The responses were weighted to balance geographic, age, gender, race and ethnicity data to ensure the information was representative of Florida’s population.
Among a list of 15 issues, ranging from the economy to endangered species, food safety ranked third, with 85 percent of respondents calling it extremely or highly important. Food production practices came in ninth, with 74 percent ranking it as extremely or highly important. The issue of genetically modified foods was 14th on the list, with 57 percent calling it important, Irani said.
An example of a knowledge gap between respondents’ perceptions and fact was the response to a question about the safety of different types of food products. For instance, frozen fruits and vegetables enjoyed high consumer confidence, with at least 72 percent of those polled saying they are safe. About 60 percent of respondents felt similarly about canned fruits and vegetables. Raw fruits and vegetables were close behind, with nearly 60 percent of respondents perceiving them as safe.
And that, says Doug Archer, associate dean for research for UF/IFAS, underscores the public’s lack of knowledge. Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables are actually far safer than unwashed raw produce, he said.
“The number of outbreaks of foodborne illness attributable to fresh produce has grown substantially in the last two decades to the point where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have become very concerned,” Archer said.
Joy Rumble, an assistant professor in agricultural education and communication with the PIE Center, said the study also showed that while nearly half the respondents said they were worried about genetically modified or engineered food safety, many were unsure about possible advantages, whether they would ever buy genetically modified food, or whether genetically modified organisms (GMOs) might harm the environment.
But 52 percent approve of using genetic modification to help fight citrus greening, a disease that threatens the state’s $9 billion citrus industry.
Scientists use the term “genetic modification” to describe the ways genes can be used to add favorable traits in new plant varieties and “genetic engineering” or “transgenic development” to describe adding one or two desirable traits to an organism. For example, plants may be genetically engineered to survive herbicide treatments, or to confer pest or virus resistance. Currently the only genetically engineered crops are field corn, soybean, cotton, canola, sugar beet, papaya and squash.
Kevin Folta, interim chair of UF’s horticultural sciences department, genetically engineers plants in his research, and welcomes public discussion on GMOs.
“There has never been a single case of harm to an animal or human eating an estimated 3 trillion meals in the last 17 years, since genetically engineered food became available in the marketplace,” Folta said. “The survey says that we need to be doing more in communicating the science to the public.”
UF has dedicated $1.45 million toward food security, safety and distribution systems as part of its Preeminence Plan – how officials hope to spend the first $15 million from the state Legislature to hire top-flight faculty in targeted areas.
The survey was the last of four PIE Center surveys this year to track public opinion on agriculture and natural resources issues. They hope to conduct the surveys every year to track changes in public opinion.