Although food safety is low on the list of European consumer concerns, about 40 per cent of them believe that their health could be at risk from the food they eat.
The survey indicates that the bloc's manufacturers have an image problem on their hands despite recent regulatory and industry measures to increase food safety controls.
The perception about food safety could in turn influence how processors manufacture and sell their brands.
Recent food safety laws implementing tougher hygiene requirements are part of the EU's policy to regaining consumers' trust in the supply chain.>/p>
Public opinion on the evolution of food safety over the last ten years is divided, a Eurobarometer survey found. About 38 per cent say that food safety has improved, 29 per cent feel that it has stayed about the same and 28 per cent believe that we are now worse off.
"Worry is an important determinant of people's attitudes to food safety and, in particular, on how they respond to information about food safety," Eurobarometer stated in an analysis of a risk survey released yesterday.
Eurobarometer, the European Commission's statistics collection unit, finds that 40 per cent of people believe that they are at risk from foods. Nonetheless, the thought of food generally has positive connotations for Europeans, the survey found.
As a control measure the survey found that when presented with a list of possible risks, 61 per cent of Europeans cite environmental pollution and 51 car accidents as likely to affect them personally.
Europeans associate food first and foremost with taste and pleasure while, when purchasing food, they are more guided by the quality and price of food than by health and food safety concerns, the survey found.
The survey was commissioned by the Directorate-General Health and Consumer Protection and the European Food Safety Authority to assess how people in the EU perceive risk, focusing in particular on food safety.
The association of food with health is only made by one person in five.
When people are asked to specifically cite any problems or risks associated with food, they cite many factors. Food poisoning comes to mind most often, cited by 16 per cent of those surveyed last October.
About 14 per cent of those surveyed cited chemicals as a concern while 13 per cent said obesity was a problem. For seven per cent of respondents food does not present any risks or problems at all.
However, when consumers are reminded of the possible risks associated with food through the presentation of a closed list of potential issues, concerns appear to be quite widespread, Eurobarometer found.
The main finding is that people do not differentiate greatly between the various types of risks although they are more likely to worry about risks caused by
external factors over which they have no control.
At the top end of the "worry" scale, consumers express concern regarding external factors that are clearly identified as dangerous. The concerns include pesticides residues, new viruses such as avian influenza, residues in meats, contamination of food by bacteria and unhygienic conditions outside home.
In the mid-range of worry factors, consumers expressed concern over other external factors such as environmental pollutants, genetically modified products, food additives, animal welfare and "mad cow disease" or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).
Consumers appear to be less concerned about personal factors such as individual susceptibility to food allergies or other factors linked to their own behaviour, such as food preparation, food hygiene at home and putting on weight.
About 66 per cent say they are aware of consumer rights and 61 per cent say they are aware of food safety rules.
About 54 per cent think that their health concerns are taken seriously by the EU and 55 per cent believe that authorities react quickly, indicating a strong level of confidence in public authorities' actions, Eurobarometer stated.
However about 47 per cent of citizens think that when deciding on priorities, authorities would favour the economic interests of producers over the health
Turning to food specifically, 58% are confident that public authorities account for the most recent scientific evidence in taking decisions regarding food risk and one in two praises public authorities for their work in informing citizens about food-related risks.
While 62 per cent agree that food safety laws in the EU are strict, some reservations emerge regarding their enforcement, with only 46 per cent believing that this is properly done. Overall, nearly half the consumers surveyed agree that public authorities in the EU are doing enough with respect to food safety risks, while one third would like to see them do more.
"Whilst the analysis of results points to significant differences between the member states, it should be kept in mind that this does not necessarily reflect the actual situation in the various countries with respect to food safety," Eurobarometer stated. "It is rather indicative of differences observed in respondents' propensity to worry and to admit to being worried about potential food safety risks."
The results may also be affected by cultural differences when it comes to expressing attitudes, concerns or perceptions regarding risks, and food-related risks in particular, the survey unit stated.
The analysis also shows that there is a profile of worriers. One third of the population demonstrated a pattern of being "very worried". Women and people with a lower level of education tend to be over-represented in this category, but other factors such as age or occupation did not seem to greatly influence responses.
At the other end of the scale, the "not very worried" group accounts for one fifth of the population.
Food safety scares, including the recent dioxin contamination outbreak and the discovery of avian flu on the doorstep of the EU, have made consumers more wary of the products they eat. The beef industry has recently recovered from the outbreak of BSE during the 1980s, while poultry consumption is suffering a similar fate over fears about avian flu.