Public perception of risk from raw vegetables remains very low in the United Kingdom, according to new consumer research conducted since E. coli outbreaks this year in Britain and Germany were linked to contaminated produce.


Those outbreaks have led the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to begin a public awareness campaign to get more people in the UK to handle, store and cook raw vegetables safely.

“Vegetables: Best Served Washed” is the theme of the ad campaign that will run in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland between now and next January.

“Our previous campaigns have highlighted the risks associated with preparing raw meat and poultry,” said Andrew Wedge, FSA’s chief scientist, in the agency’s news release.  “However, recent E. coli outbreaks linked with vegetables and sprouted seeds have shown that handling fresh produce, particularly if it carries particles of soil, can spread harmful bacteria.”

Wedge says research since the E. coli O104:H4 outbreak centered in northern Germany shows people think the risk of foodborne illness from raw vegetables is low. He said most people are more cautious when handling meat and there is limited awareness about cross-contamination.

The “consumer engagement research” commissioned by FSA included both video recordings of four in-home interviews and four focus groups.  The goal was to explore attitudes about risk, beliefs about food safety, and triggers that might change behavior.

In a 33-page report on the research, FSA was advised to focus its message on the fact that there is a risk of food poisoning from vegetables and to offer this advice:

– Washing and scrubbing vegetables reduces bacteria as well as dirt and chemicals.

– Bacteria carried on a range of vegetables could contaminate other foods.

– Cooking vegetables kills bacteria and was perceived to be a potential defense.

Anything that sounds too burdensome or lacks common sense won’t be accepted by the public, says the report. The work was conducted by TNS-BMRB, which has done social research for UK government agencies since 1933.

The TNS-BMRM interviews found that people view the risk from fruits and vegetables as  “very low.”  This has not changed even though raw vegetables and sprouted seeds caused the recent E. coli outbreaks in Britain and Germany.

“People all over the world eat veg (vegetables) straight out of the ground and everything’s been on it, animals doing what they do, (and) I don’t see any risk with vegetables at all,” a Birmingham woman told the researchers.

Even though the German-centered E. coli O104:H4 outbreak dominated the news in the UK for about month last spring, E. coli was brought up spontaneously to researchers in only a few instances.   

“When probed, the overall threat posed by E. coli was perceived to be low,” the report says.  The O104 outbreak infected about 3,500, resulting in 49 deaths.

“Many respondents took the attitude that this outbreak was a one-off and because of its occurrence in foreign produce, saw it as a very distant threat,” the report continues.  “Thus it seemed to be the case that the outbreak was quickly judged to not pose any immediate risk and was put to the back of the mind.”

Some organic advocates acknowledged they like dirt with their vegetables.  “I see soil and mud, I know this sounds weird but, as organic and healthy,” said a Leicester man.  “It’s come from the earth.”

“It is important to note that ideas of quality and freshness were often confused with issues of food safety, with more organic or home grown food being seen as safer,”  TNS-BMRB reports.

Based on the report, FSA’s new advertising campaign includes the following messages:

– always wash hands thoroughly before and after handling raw food, including vegetables.

– keep raw foods, including vegetables, separate from ready-to-eat foods.

– use different chopping boards, knives, and utensils for raw and ready-to-eat foods, or wash thoroughly in between preparing different foods.

– unless packaging around vegetables says “ready-to-eat,” wash, peel, or cook them before consuming.

The campaign will run from the third week in November for one month in Scotland and Wales.   The advertising will start on Dec. 5 in Northern Ireland and run for two weeks with a break before resuming for two more weeks on Jan. 2.