An October online survey of 524 adult residents of Florida found that respondents are concerned about food safety and genetically modified foods and believe they do a good job of keeping themselves safe from foodborne illnesses. However, they may be unclear about which foods, preparation techniques or cooking methods pose the highest risk. The survey, released Monday, Dec. 8, by the University of Florida’s Public Issues in Education Center (PIE), listed 10 public-issue topics, which respondents ranked based on their perceived importance. The economy, health care and water were at the top of the list. Food production was ranked just after housing and foreclosures and just ahead of immigration in terms of importance. The majority of respondents reported they always wash their hands before preparing food, separate raw meat, poultry and seafood from other food products, and wash fruits and vegetables before eating them. They also said they look for expiration dates on food and wash their hands before eating. But 59 percent of the survey respondents believe that meat should be rinsed under cold water before cooking, 13 percent said it’s OK to defrost frozen foods on the kitchen counter, and 38 percent said that ground meat will stay fresh in the refrigerator four to five days. Experts now say that rinsing raw meat can contaminate other foods, defrosting should be done in the refrigerator, and ground meat can be safely kept in the refrigerator one to two days. Doug Archer, associate dean for research with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and a food safety expert, said that foodborne disease statistics suggest Floridians may give themselves more credit for their food-handling habits than they deserve. Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that Florida’s foodborne-illness rate led the nation from 1998 to 2008, but this may be at least in part attributable to the reporting system of the Florida Department of Health and the counties. “Given our rate of foodborne illness, I don’t think what they think they do is actually what they do,” Archer said. Joy Rumble, UF assistant professor of agricultural communication and one of the survey’s authors, said that respondents were also confused about foodborne illness risks. Ninety-four percent of respondents had at least some concerns about pesticide residues in food, 93 percent were concerned about bacteria, 91 percent had similar concerns about antibiotics, 90 percent worried about food additives, and 88 percent were concerned about preservatives. “They had concerns about all of these other factors, but of the risks we asked about, bacteria pose the greatest risk,” Rumble said. “All of the common foodborne illnesses — E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria — they’re all caused by bacteria.” As a scientist, Archer said the public’s concerns over factors that actually pose little threat are disheartening. Norovirus is far and away the biggest foodborne illness culprit, followed closely by a cadre of illness-causing bacteria, but the public frets over pesticide residues — a worry scientists believed had long been put to rest. “It’s disappointing. We’re missing the mark,” he said. “It’s frustrating to have to fight a ghost when we’ve got the real McCoy right here.” The survey also covered genetically modified products and foods, a topic the survey suggested is still causing confusion for many Floridians. Forty-one percent agreed or strongly agreed that they understand the science behind genetically modified foods, but only 19 percent felt that they know which foods contain genetically modified ingredients. And while 41 percent were clear that they would not buy food products such as cereal that contain genetically modified ingredients, they almost certainly have. Most common breakfast cereals that contain corn or soy contain genetically modified products. Ninety-two percent of the survey respondents said they want to know more about genetically modified foods, a finding Rumble said equals an opportunity for UF/IFAS Extension and researchers to help fill that information void. The online responses were weighted to balance geographic, age, gender, race and ethnicity data to ensure the information was representative of the state’s population. The online food safety survey was the last of four PIE Center surveys this year to track public opinion on agriculture and natural resources issues. The goal is to track public opinion over time. The PIE Center will host a webinar at 2 p.m. EST on Dec. 17 to dive deeper into food survey topics. Rumble and Archer will discuss the survey’s food-safety results. Then, at 1 p.m. EST on Jan. 28, the center will host a second webinar with Rumble and Alison Van Eenennaam, an animal genomics and biotechnology expert from the University of California, Davis, to discuss the survey’s findings on genetically modified foods. More about the webinars is available at http://www.piecenter.com/easy-as-pie.