What consumers think is true is no less important than what's really true.
The latest analysis of the spinach outbreak, released this month by the Rutgers Food Policy Institute, bears that out. In case you missed it, contaminated spinach from California killed three people and sickened about 200 others last year.
When the illnesses first came to light, the federal government told consumers not to eat fresh spinach. Retailers promptly yanked the leafy green from store shelves, and restaurants followed suit.
Rutgers' study, which was based on a national survey of 1,200 people, offers a snapshot of how consumers reacted, and their perceptions of the problem with spinach. The study showed:
Nearly nine out of 10 consumers said they had heard about the recall, and the majority cut spinach out of their diet in response to the government's warning.
Far more people heard the warning not to eat spinach than the subsequent message that the vegetable was safe to eat again. Nearly one in three said they did not realize the recall was over when interviewed by Rutgers' researchers in November,- more than six weeks after the government gave the all-clear to spinach grown outside the implicated counties in California.
The outbreak caused consumers to be leery of other fresh produce. About one in five respondents who had heard of the recall stopped eating other bagged produce.
More than 40% of respondents said they thought washing contaminated produce makes it safe to eat. That's contrary to what the top food safety officer at the Food and Drug Administration publicly stated — that no amount of washing will remove certain kinds of bacteria on produce.
The crisis cost the industry millions of dollars in lost business. Whether it's a sign of no appetite for spinach, or lack of availability, sales of the leafy green have not recovered. Sales declines ranged from 47% to 56% for the 15 weeks ending Dec. 23, 2006, compared to the same period a year earlier, according to the Perishables Group. Packaged salads without spinach were down nearly 10% during the same period.
Regardless of what the truth is about produce safety, the industry must change consumer perceptions to restore confidence. The industry also needs the federal government on its side. Nobody can completely eliminate the potential for future outbreaks of illness, but there should be ways to contain the damage — and the message.
One industry observer thinks mandatory national standards would help. While he commended California's efforts to set tough rules for lettuce and other leafy greens, Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive officer of the United Fresh Produce Association, thinks the government should develop rigorous standards that can be enforced around the country.
“We've got to get a better grip on how we handle foodborne illness outbreaks, how the FDA communicates them and how we work with them,” he said. “If the FDA isn't confident in the overall safety of spinach across the country, they've got a responsibility to do something about it. We need support from the government when something like this happens.”