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Recent poll shows consumers worried about safety of their food
By now you are most likely finishing up the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers. If you, however, still have remnants of the feast hanging around your refrigerator, you may want to think twice about eating them. Food safety is a serious subject, and it is being taken more seriously by consumers than ever before.

A recent Harris poll indicated just how serious consumers are taking the food safety issue. Fifty-two percent of adults are extremely or very concerned about the safety of the food they buy in grocery stores. This sudden rise of food safety jitters comes as a result of the E. coli scares of the past few months. According to the poll, 91 percent of those responding said they were at least somewhat familiar with the E. coli outbreak in spinach. Eighty-three percent could identify that the outbreak involved prepackaged spinach.

Of those who could identify the spinach outbreak, 42 percent said they had stopped eating spinach. Of that group, 41 percent indicated they had also boycotted lettuce, believing it was better to be safe than sorry. Analysis at Harris said their research indicated a heightened interest by consumers in organically grown fresh vegetables believing they were safer. The Harris poll revealed that food safety has overtaken healthiness as the new top concern of consumers.

So what does this mean for the food and fiber industry? First of all, it means that producers had better insist that those who process, transport and market our products have systems in place to protect the consumer. Secondly, we in the agriculture industry have to stop squabbling over animal ID, Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), and inspection and testing standards.

In the past I have written against mandatory COOL, but I have not been against the concept just the particular plan that would have cost producers millions of dollars. With a Democratic majority in Congress, COOL will soon be a reality. I just hope it is a program that will truly serve the interests of the consumers and the producers.

Likewise, the National Animal ID system is crawling toward implementation with a lot of kicking and screaming by western cattle producers. While the issues of confidentiality and data management need to be addressed, we also need to get this system online and working. Think what would happen if we had a national food safety issue involving beef or pork. Could the industry survive if, overnight, 40 percent of American consumers stopped buying beef or pork?

Food safety is not a PR issue; it is an economic issue. Consumer confidence is what keeps people buying what we in agriculture produce. We must take steps to protect our products and their reputations. It is a responsibility shared by producers, processors, and retailers. As the Harris study shows us, it is an issue that cannot be ignored.

This farm news was published in the Nov. 29, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.