U.S. consumers are confident about their ability to keep food safe, but they’re not so sure about others, and they don’t have a good feel for the incidence of food-borne illness.

A Michigan State University survey shows a country in cuisine conflict.

According to the Food Safety Policy Center’s survey, only 10 percent of Americans say they contracted food poisoning in the past year. However, Centers of Disease Control and Prevention data show that food-borne illness affects some 325,000 people annually.

“We get sick, but we don’t always know if it’s a food-borne illness,” says Craig Harris, a MichiganState sociologist and the center’s study director. “We don’t know who is getting sick. We don’t know if food-borne illness is evenly distributed across the United States or whether some groups are better able to protect themselves.”

The FoodSafetyPolicyCenter conducted the survey involving telephone interviews with 1,014 U.S. adults between Oct. 31, 2005, and Feb. 9, 2006. Researchers point out that food-borne illness is a complex web. Triggers can include practices on the farm and in the field, processing and distribution channels, restaurants, kitchen tables, even lunch bags left in a car.

Consumers have a high trust in the federal government’s monitoring and protection roles. Yet half of the respondents don’t want the government to ban foods that may pose safety challenges but that also offer a high value. Harris points to foods like raw milk, fresh cheese or unpasteurized apple cider as examples.

“We’re all complex and we have a combination of expectations,” says Harris. “On one hand, we want the federal government to make the food supply as safe as possible. Yet, sometimes we’re willing to accept an unsafe food because it’s fresher, it tastes better or it’s part of our ethnic identity. We want the freedom and autonomy to choose.”

Among the survey findings:

  • Ninety-six percent of respondents say they trust themselves to ensure that their food is safe. Asked if they trust others, the confidence rate drops to 62 percent. Despite the rate of self-confidence, only 58 percent say they know quite a bit about food safety. In a sense, they’re saying food-safety problems result from someone else’s oversight, not their own.  
  • Sixty-three percent say they are very or fairly concerned about food safety. Fifty-four percent say they think about food safety during grocery shopping, and 46 percent say they consider it when eating out.
  • Some consumers are willing to put their money where their mouths are. Eighty-four percent say they would be willing to add $270 to their annual food bill (the equivalent of an additional 5 percent) if food-borne diseases could be reduced by 50 percent. Of course, consumers don’t always walk the talk.
  • Thirty-eight percent identify the federal government as the group most responsible for keeping food safe. Eighty-eight percent say the government, specifically the Food and Drug Administration and USDA, are capable of the task. However, only 49 percent say the government has enough resources to do the job properly.

The survey did raise some red flags about how race and class affect food-safety issues. It showed African Americans, and people with low-education and low-income levels had greater food-safety concerns. “One of the things we don’t know is whether persons in these groups have the same access to foods,” says Harris. “It may be that some groups are more exposed to out-of-date or contaminated food than other people.”

In the end, the survey reinforces that there remain some gaps in reality and expectations when it comes to food-safety issues. Consumers hold you and others in the pork-supply chain to higher standards than they do themselves. Educating consumers is a long and arduous challenge, and the surest way to keep your product flowing is for all pork-chain sectors to take the lead on food-safety efforts.

Editor’s note: Survey summaries are available at www.fspc.msu.edu/press_conference.htm.