Consumer Perceptions of Produce Safety: A Study of Pennsylvania

Open Access
Tobin, Daniel
Graduate Program:
Agricultural and Extension Education
Master of Science
Document Type:
Master Thesis
Date of Defense:
May 13, 2011
Committee Members:
  • Joan S Thomson, Thesis Advisor
  • Food Safety
  • Consumer Perceptions
  • Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs)
  • Third Party Certification (TPC)
  • Local Produce
  • Organic Produce
As a leading cause of foodborne illnesses, fresh fruits and vegetables have received national attention, recently highlighted by the Food Safety Modernization Act which was signed into law in early 2011 by President Obama. Through this law [P.L. 111-353], the Food and Drug Administration will establish mandatory minimum standards based on known safety risks for the safe production and harvesting of produce. As the new law is implemented, continuing to assess consumer perceptions regarding produce safety will be particularly important, for those perceptions will allow stakeholders within the supply chain to better meet consumer demand. The purpose of this study was to assess Pennsylvania consumer perceptions of produce safety and various factors that affect those perceptions. Using data collected among Pennsylvania consumers, this study presents evidence documenting how consumer demographics, along with their preferences for specific attributes in fresh produce, such as locally grown, organically grown, and inspected for food safety, affect their produce safety perceptions. In order to determine these relationships, telephone interviews with randomly sampled Pennsylvania consumers were conducted. Interviews included questions about consumers’ produce safety perceptions, their preferences for local produce, organic produce, and produce that has been inspected for on-farm food safety, as well as demographic information. A total of 604 Pennsylvania consumers provided valid data, for a survey cooperation rate of 71.6%. Among the most significant results from this study are that Pennsylvania consumers, regardless of gender, race, age, educational level, financial status, or residential location, believed produce safety is an important issue. A multivariate analysis also determined that preferences for locally grown produce, organically grown produce, and produce that has been inspected for on-farm food safety were the most significant predictors of produce safety perceptions among consumers. Those who more strongly preferred these produce attributes placed higher importance on the issue of produce safety. The only demographic variable that emerged in the multivariate analysis as a significant predictor of produce safety perceptions was income group. Those in lower income groups perceived the issue of produce safety as more important than those in higher income groups. The results from this study provide important information for other groups of stakeholders seeking to implement practices that reduce the risk of foodborne contamination. A better understanding of consumer produce safety perceptions and preferences will allow stakeholder groups, including growers and supermarkets, to make better informed decisions regarding their food safety policies and practices. Communicating this information to supermarkets and produce growers is particularly important, for these groups are not likely to capitalize on market opportunities without a thorough understanding of consumer perceptions. Extension, therefore, can fill a critical role as a communications facilitator among these groups of stakeholders. Through its educational programming, Extension can present the findings from this study to Pennsylvania supermarkets and produce growers to encourage the implementation of food policies and practices that reduce the risk of foodborne contamination.