Odd timing for food safety to fall off consumers’ top worries
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Odd timing for food safety to fall off consumers’ top worries

Nutritionists trying to understand why people don’t eat vegetables have heard every excuse in the book, including “they’re not safe.” 

But something has changed. We’re still not eating enough vegetables, but now, we’re not blaming on-farm production practices for our disdain.

Last week the US-based Alliance for Food and Farming announced there’s been a 20 per cent decline in overall levels of concern by the public about produce safety, compared to its 2016 survey. 

And most notable is that concerns specific to pesticide residues have fallen by 10 per cent.

The Alliance claims to be the only organization that conducts broad-based, national research specific to produce safety. So, it’s findings carry some weight.

And while it’s an upbeat result, this development’s timing seems odd.

First, consumers say they are clamouring for food that is produced with minimal modern technology. You’d think that would include pesticides, even though pesticides are highly regulated.

And that leads to the second point. The Alliance believes the declining concern about food safety is directly related to the public’s satisfaction with the government’s ability to keep people safe.

It asked: “How confident are you that government regulations and other food safety efforts are working well to protect public health?” Nearly 80 per cent of respondents said they were very to somewhat confident. Only nine per cent said they were not confident.

This, at a time when confidence in the government in general is very, very low.

But by contrast confidence in the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is high. When asked to rate how much they trusted various sources to provide information about pesticide use and residues on fresh fruits and vegetables, the USDA, farmers, doctors and health care providers and dietitians/nutritionists topped the list.

That could have something to do with the USDA being closely connected to school food programs and food aid. Americans are familiar with the department, and over the years it’s gained their trust. It’s a bright light for government-consumer connections.

The Alliance thinks the findings could be related to better communications and the pandemic response. 

“These positive changes are likely the result of increased outreach, information sharing and transparency regarding produce safety, as well as consumers being focused on the pandemic and other dominating issues since the survey was last conducted in 2016,” says executive director Teresa Thorne.

My friend and colleague Karen Davidson, editor of the fruit and vegetable publication The Grower, has another take:

“In addition to government safety standards in place, another simple fact should be among the most reassuring: a farmer’s first consumer is their own family, so produce safety is always the priority,” she writes this month in a story about the research findings.

The Alliance is using this opportunity to remind people their fruit and vegetable consumption is still lacking.

“With only one in 10 of us eating enough of these nutrient-dense foods every day, it is important to understand consumer concerns as well as what science-based safety information helps them make the right shopping choices for themselves and their families,” says Thorne.

Information sharing is never done. Fruit and vegetable sector, keep your foot on the gas.

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