Consumers confident in U.S. food safety

CLARKSDALE, Miss. -- Do we really care where our food comes from? As long as the supermarket shelves are stocked and the fast food places are dishing out burgers, pizza, chicken nuggets, etc., why should we care where it all originates?

We who are involved in agriculture care, of course. But what of Jane and John Consumer, who in the majority have no firsthand connection to agriculture and little concept of how all that food comes to be?

If the U.S. could buy all its food from other countries, cheaper than it can be produced and sold here, would we? Should we?

We've already seen how the globalization of markets has decimated the U.S. textile industry, eliminating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process, how electronics and cameras became the province of Japan, Korea, and China, how a major portion of the auto industry has been claimed by imports. And on and on.

So, what's the big deal about food, much of which already comes from abroad? If it means shelling out fewer bucks at the supermarket, why not?

Well, despite general consumer ignorance about the sources of food, a recent national survey showed most (74 percent) do not favor conceding production to other countries.

A team of scientists from a dozen major U.S. universities conducted the study, the third in a series on food, farming, and international issues since 1986. Some of the findings:

• Mad cow disease, hoof and mouth disease, and other livestock health issues were a major concern. While 92 percent of respondents said they trust the safety of meat grown in the U.S., only 14 percent said they would eat meat from England, 21 percent from South America, and 10 percent from European countries.

• Four out of five survey participants said they feel food grown and processed in the U.S. is safer and fresher than imported food. Only 4 percent said they feel imported foods are superior in nutrition and taste. And 51 percent believe U.S.-grown food is cheaper than imported.

• About 57 percent admitted they have some concerns about the safety of U.S. farming practices and their impact on health. But 80 percent expressed concern about these issues in other countries.

• When queried as to the "pocketbook test" — whether they would pay more for food grown in the U.S. than the same food from overseas — 68 percent said they would do so. Seventy percent said they would prefer food grown locally, near where they live, and would pay more for it.

• Asked who they most trust for information about the safety of the foods they eat, the respondents said (1) farmers, 70 percent, (2) university professors, 57 percent, (3) elected officials, (4) celebrities, 12 percent (frightening in itself!), and (5) business executives, 11 percent. Of government agencies, USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency had trust levels of 82 percent, 73 percent, and 72 percent, respectively, while only 13 percent said they trusted information from foreign governments.

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