Pesticides and Food: Public Worry No. 1

By Lecos, Chris | FDA Consumer, July-August 1984 | Go to article overview

Pesticides and Food: Public Worry No. 1


Lecos, Chris, FDA Consumer


For years, various surveys have documented the continued confidence of most Americans consumers in the safety of the foods they buy and eat. But what happens to the public's trust in food safety after a series of widely publicized incidents such as product tamperings, recalls of foods, controversy over chemical residues in foods, and publicity about a relationship between the foods we eat and cancer?

The Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an organization of food retailers and wholesalers, including most big supermarkets chains and many independent supermarkets and regional firms, sought the answers in a telephone survey of 1,008 shoppers last January. The Washington, D.C., organization's report, ''Public Attitudes Toward Food Safety,'' was issued in late March.

In the three years prior to the latest survey, FMI said, Americans had been barraged with such issues as the tampering with Tylenol capsules in 1982; a number of sizable product recalls, including baby foods, canned fish, mushrooms and cake mixes the recent warnings of a possible relationship between diet and diseases such as cancer and heart conditions; and the highly publicized controversy over the use of ethylene dibromide (EDB) that surfaced in late 1983 and continued into 1984.

The 1,008 participants--60 percent of them women--were interviewed on behalf of FMI by Louis Harris & Associates Inc., New York, between Jan. 17 and Jan. 30. EDB already was on the front pages, although media coverage was more extensive afterward, FMI's report noted. EDB specifically was not mentioned in FMI's survey. The survey concluded that there is a persistent public concern over chemical residues in foods but that there has been no general decline in overall ''confidence'' in the food supply.

The survey focused on six subject: residues in the food supply, cholesterol, salt, additives and preservatives, sugar, and artificial coloring agents. The participants were asked whether they considered these products serious health hazards, somewhat hazardous, or not hazardous at all. Far ahead of any other public concern was that voiced about chemical residues in foods.

Of those surveyed, 77 percent said that chemical residues such as pesticides and herbicides are a serious hazard, and 18 percent described them as something of a hazard. The second highest level of concer was over cholesterol content of food; 45 percent cited it as a serious hazard and 48 percent as something of a hazard. Salt in food was viewed as a serious hazard by 37 percent, additives and preservatives by 32 percent, sugar 31 percent, and artificial coloring agents by 26 percent. Only 2 percent did not view chemical residues as a hazard.

''The response toward residues is significant,'' the FMI report said, ''because it outstrips the others by such a wide margin.'' Although FMI said it planned to probe this issue in a later survey to see if the EDB response was caused by recent media attention, the pollsters said that public concern over chemical residues appeared to be deep-rooted.

The report noted that FMI's continuing research ''has shown a tendency for the public to be somewhat skeptical of new scientific findings about health hazards. The reaction to the proposed saccharin ban is a case in point. The public has become used to conflicting scientific opinion on health issues and position reversals on topics ranging from dietary recommendations to the depletion of the ozone layer....

''However, the findings on residues in this study indicate that the public is not taking a wait-and-see attitude. Residues seem to be a pervasive concern. this leads us to believe that residues should not be thought of in the same category as previous food controversies of scientific debate with little public constituency.''

Another part of the FMI survey covered concerns about the nutritional covered concerns about the nutritional content of food. …

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