Consumer confidence in the safety of the nation's food supply has rebounded from the record low levels of two years ago, according to recently released public opinion surveys.
In the spring of 1989, the food industry endured a twin crisis. Red apples became synonymous with Alar, a suspected carcinogen, and Chilean fruit was pulled from store shelves after an alleged cyanide poisoning.
The subsequent recovery was painstakingly slow for the food industry and there are lasting repercussions: The public still believes -- by overwhelming margins of 9-1 -- that food safety remains an important issue, according to the new data.
The most recent national survey was conducted for the Food Marketing Institute, a Washington-based grocers' trade group.
Among the 1,004 people queried, 82 percent said that they were "completely confident" or "mostly confident" that the food in supermarkets is safe. The figure is a significant increase from a similar institute poll conducted in June 1990, which found that only 65 percent expressed some degree of confidence in the food supply.
"Confidence [levels] dropped . . . while we were still reeling from Alar and [Chilean] grapes," said Tim Hammonds, Food Marketing Institute's senior vice president. He said the current findings "show that an effective total industry response can regain the public trust, but it does take a long time."
Another public opinion study, with a sampling base of 1,029 adults nationwide, also proclaims that consumers' faith in food has been restored, particularly in terms of fruit and vegetables.
The Center for Produce Quality, an industry-sponsored foundation, recently released a report entitled "Two Years After Alar: A Survey of Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Safety." This polling data showed that more than 80 percent of those surveyed were "very confident" or "somewhat confident" of the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
"After a clear decline . . . between January and March 1989 . . . confidence has now fully returned to 'pre-Alar' levels," said the center, which is jointly funded by the Produce Marketing Association and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association.
As do the Food Marketing Institute's data, the center's poll shows that the public is deeply concerned about food safety despite the current absence of a controversy.
In announcing the report, the center stated that "food safety today strikes a deep psychological chord within the public."
For instance, 72 percent agreed that current regulations for pesticides do not sufficiently protect children -- the central thesis of the environmental group report that fueled the Alar crisis.
Another 73 percent of those queried want farmers to limit their use of pesticides further.
One theme that was noticeable in the surveys by both the Center for Produce Quality and the Food Marketing Institute is the public's tendency to link food safety issues to a heightened awareness of the environment. The center's poll found that 59 percent "strongly agreed that they are very concerned about the effects of pesticides on the environment."
By comparison, the institute report found that "almost half (47 percent) say that they have already refused to buy products from companies whose policies they do not agree with. Almost 40 percent avoid products over the question of ethical treatment of animals. And 30 percent refuse to buy products that are not recyclable or have unnecessary packaging."