The more than three-month-long Salmonella outbreak that rocked restaurants and sickened more than 1,400 people this past summer left consumers a bit confused about the safety of the food supply, according to a recent Rutgers Food Policy Institute study.

The 43-state-wide outbreak began on May 11, believed to be caused by the consumption of certain types of fresh tomatoes, and eventually ended on Aug. 28, ultimately linked to eating fresh jalapeño and serrano peppers from Mexico. As part of the Salmonella Saintpaul Outbreak of 2008 report, researchers found that 93 percent of respondents were aware that tomatoes were believed to be the source of the illness, but only 68 percent knew that peppers were also related to the outbreak.

In an effort to prevent additional illnesses during the outbreak, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a series of advisories to consumers to avoid eating certain types of tomatoes and peppers.

According to the report’s results, very few consumers heard about the advisories through restaurants or retailers (8 percent). Although, 66 percent heard the news on television.
Despite efforts by the industry and the FDA, there was also a significant amount of confusion surrounding the types of tomatoes associated with the warnings. Nearly half of respondents indicated they were not certain which types of tomatoes were unsafe to consume.

“Our results suggest that consumers may have a hard time taking in the details about these types of food-borne problems,” says Dr. Cara Cuite, lead author of the report. “This report is especially timely in light of the growing number of recalls as a result of the Salmonella outbreak associated with peanut butter and peanut paste.”

While some consumers might have misunderstood the FDA’s warnings, others simply ignored them. Eleven percent of respondents reported knowingly eating the types of tomatoes that the FDA had warned not to eat. The main reasons given for doing so were: believing that eating them wouldn’t cause illness, distrusting the government and/or media, and the belief that retailers wouldn’t sell unsafe products.

Thirty-three percent of respondents said they were not even aware the tomato warning had ended.

Access the entire report here.

–Blair Chancey