Although three in four remain confident about the overall safety of foods, the poll found that consumers overwhelmingly support setting up a tracing system for produce in the wake of the salmonella outbreak first linked to tomatoes and, now, hot peppers.
Eighty-six percent said produce should be labeled so it can be tracked through layers of processors, packers and shippers, all the way back to the farm. The lack of such a system frustrated disease detectives working on the salmonella outbreak. Although federal officials lifted the tomato warning Thursday, the cause of the outbreak remains unknown.
The poll found that 80 percent of Americans said they would support new federal standards for fresh produce. Meat and poultry have long been subject to enforceable federal safeguards, but fruits and vegetables are not, although produce increasingly is being implicated in outbreaks.
Christy Taylor, a first-grade teacher from Sacramento, Calif., said she has all but given up on supermarket produce and is buying most of her fresh fruits and vegetables at the local farmers' market instead.
"I see the same farmers every single week," said Taylor, 30, the mother of 2-year-old twin girls. "You meet the people and you see where the (produce) is coming from."
Her twins love tomatoes, she said, and chomp on them as if they were apples. But until the mystery of the tainted tomatoes is solved, "I feel a little bit more comfortable, a little more safe, doing the local farmers' market," Taylor said.
In addition to the salmonella outbreak, this year has seen the largest ground beef recall in history, raising consumer concerns reflected in the poll.
Forty-six percent said they were worried they might get sick from eating contaminated food and that they have avoided foods because of safety warnings that they normally would have purchased. Twenty-nine percent have thrown out food earlier than usual and 14 percent have returned food to the store.
Such a level of uneasiness among consumers is "very significant," said Michael R. Taylor, a former senior federal food safety official who now teaches at George Washington University.
"When you have almost half the population avoiding certain foods because of safety concerns, that's very significant from the standpoint of economic impact for the people selling the food, and from the standpoint of peace of mind for consumers," said Taylor. Tomato growers say they have lost more than $100 million as a result of the current salmonella outbreak, which has sickened more than 1,200 people in 42 states since April.
The poll also found gender, racial and economic gaps on attitudes about food safety. Women, who do most of the shopping, were more concerned than men. For example, 39 percent of men said they were "very confident" that the food they buy is safe, but only 23 percent of women said they felt that way. However, men and women agreed on the need for better federal oversight.
"We've got to protect our food supply," said Stephan Weiss, 58, of West Linn, Ore., who runs a small engraving and embroidery business. "And if more inspectors are going to prevent people from getting sick and dying, then it's worth it."
People with lower incomes were less confident in food safety, as were minorities. Nearly half of Hispanics had little or no confidence in the safety of the food they buy.
In Congress, a leading advocate of food safety reforms said the industry would do well to listen to consumers on the need for tracing.
"We live in an age of technology where you can bar-code a banana," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "We've got to work this through with the industry and come up with something that's reasonable. The more confidence consumers have, the more goods they will purchase."
While the produce industry agrees that federal standards for preventing contamination are necessary, there is no consensus on a mandatory tracing system. Cost is a concern, especially for smaller companies.
The poll also found that 56 percent of consumers do not believe the government has enough inspectors to scrutinize food imports. If more are needed for imports and domestic produce, 70 percent said the cost should be covered through fees on industry. That echoes a proposal by Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The telephone poll of 1,000 adults was conducted July 10-14 and has a sampling error margin of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for the overall sample.