Florida's agricultural industry must do a better job of educating consumers about food safety.
That's the conclusion University of Florida/IFAS researchers have drawn from the results of a statewide survey that addressed several food-related issues, including public perceptions about food safety and specific issues such as genetically modified foods.
The October online survey, designed to measure consumer concerns and performed by UF's Center for Public Issues Education, known as the PIE Center, 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 accurately represented Florida's population.
Food safety ranked third, behind the economy and healthcare, 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 identifying it as important.
"I think the significance of the findings is that there are definitely areas where respondents in this study had a lack of knowledge and in some cases misperception of the relative safety of food products and behavioral practices related to the safe handling of food," said PIE Center director Tracy Irani. "I think that is an indication that despite all that we are doing to try to educate members of the public about food safety, there are still some additional things we have to do to try to understand how we can fill those gaps of understanding and what we can do to try to influence safe food handling among the general public."
Another inference that can be drawn from the survey, Irani said, is that the public is not necessarily aware of all that is being done in the area of food safety, both from a policy standpoint and an industry standards standpoint. "So there is also the implication that we need to be doing a better job of telling the story of what we are doing as an industry with respect to food safety," Irani said.
Jaime Jerrels, assistant director of agricultural policy at Florida Farm Bureau Federation (FFBF), sees even broader significance in the survey findings.
"People want and need information about where and how their food is grown - and that information is becoming more important to them," said Jerrels, who was one of the industry leaders who reviewed and blessed the survey before its initiation. "For example, we're now seeing that in more instances, food purchase decisions are being based on how much information is available about a food product, rather than the cost, which is amazing to me at a time when we're still in a [slow economy]."
And the trend toward a desire for more food knowledge is particularly apparent in younger consumers, Jerrels said.
"The bottom line, to me, is that it is a call for transparency among consumers and that it's real," Jerrels said. "That means our agricultural industry needs to answer that. And the only way we can do that is by educating consumers more and more about our products and market them in new ways based on that increased knowledge."
Such proactive education is particularly important now, Irani said, because of increasingly frequent media reports about food borne illnesses and related food safety issues that spike public awareness without necessarily causing consumers to seek out current, comprehensive and accurate information that furthers their understanding of what they can do to ensure the safety of their food and its preparation.
The underlying issue, Irani said, is better education that leads to improved awareness.
As a result, in 2014, PIE Center hopes to rally broad support from the state's agricultural industry and bring together a coalition of entities such as Florida Department of Education & Consumer Services, FFBF, and trade associations representing various categories of crop producers such as strawberries, blueberries and tomatoes, to create a well-coordinated, high-profile educational initiative that empowers consumers with better knowledge and also builds the case for Florida food products.
Jerrels said FFBF strongly supports that call to action.
"We support the idea 100 percent," she said. "We are always going to be supportive of food safety, from farm to fork, and anything that helps promote it."
Both Jerrels and Irani see the survey findings as ultimately positive, in the sense that they will prompt a commitment to do a better job of educating consumers about food safety. And given the strong story Florida has to tell, Jerrels said, that is a good thing for the state's agricultural industry.
"And the real point, to me," she said, "is to get out in front of the issue, not just try to catch up with what consumers are demanding."
Center for Public Issues Education
University of Florida
Assistant Director, Agricultural Policy
Florida Farm Bureau Federation