American consumers now are more concerned about chemicals in their food than foodborne illness, according to the International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation’s 2015 Food and Health Survey.
But scientifically, foodborne illness is by far the greater health concern. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, estimates that each year, roughly one in six Americans falls ill from foodborne diseases, with 3,000 deaths.
“The risks posed by pesticides in food pale in comparison to the risks from foodborne illness,” said Carl Winter, extension food toxicologist and vice-chair of the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California at Davis. “Our typical exposure to pesticide residues is at levels more than one million times lower than levels that, when given to laboratory animals on a daily basis through their lifetimes, do not produce any noticeable effects in the animals. This strongly contrasts with the risk of foodborne illness, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the incidence at 48 million cases per year in the U.S.”
Yet in the IFIC Foundation survey, 36% of those polled cited “chemicals in food”, like pesticide residues, as the top food safety issue for them and their families, while “foodborne illness from bacteria” received 34% of the vote. The concern about chemicals grew from 23% to 36% in the last year.
Yet consumer perception does not always align with science. Research published this year in the Journal of Food Protection showed the association between chemicals and harm to health was prevalent, especially among mothers. According to the research, many view “chemicals” as any ingredients -- especially man-made ones -- added to food, which includes safe and approved food ingredients.
“The responses to the ‘most important food safety issue’ questions illustrate the difference between perceived risk and actual risk,” said Anthony Flood, senior director of food safety for the IFIC Foundation. “Some consumers believe ‘chemicals in food’ potentially cause greater harm when, in reality, these pose less risk to their health than the bacteria that cause foodborne illness – especially when they may be including safe and approved food ingredients in their definition of ‘chemicals in food.’”