How safe is our food? That seems to be a nagging question for a lot of food writers and reporters. And any food recall only fuels more scary media attention on America’s food system.

But a study released early this summer was particularly alarming. It suggested that fewer than 20 percent of consumers trust food companies to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy. So, 80 percent of consumers don’t trust their food suppliers?

The study, conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value, included 1,000 consumers in America’s 10 largest cities. The study suggests that consumers are increasingly wary of the safety of food purchased at grocery stores, and their confidence in — and trust of — food retailers, manufacturers and grocers.

Wow! Keep in mind this is not a study conducted in a third-world country. This study asks us to believe that four out of every five of our customers in the United States are fearful of their food.

When I see research like this that seems preposterous I want to know who conducted it and who paid for it. In this case, the press release about the study was issued by the IBM Institute for Business Value (yes, that IBM). Apparently IBM has developed a research division that conducts surveys and analysis. But according to IBM, the survey was “fielded by Survey Sampling International (SSI) using random samples from the managed online panels in: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose and Washington, D.C. IBM was not identified as the sponsor of the study.”

Now, that part about “samples from the managed online panels” bothered me, but not as much as the fact that IBM doesn’t reveal who it was working for. In other words, I want to follow the money.

At the end of the press release, IBM provides a Web site to visit for more information. The Web site is for IBM’s Smart Planet initiative, which includes information and resources about food. That’s right, IBM is now interested in the food you produce. Here’s what IBM says about why it is interested in food: “With innovative digital technology and powerful solutions, IBM is making sure food is traced properly as it passes through an increasingly complex global supply chain. IBM is also making that food heartier through biological research.”

Ah, so one might expect that it’s in IBM’s financial best interest that 80 percent of consumers are scared of their food, which would no doubt lead to increased use of IBM’s “innovative digital technology and powerful solutions.”

But, according to David Martosko, director of research at the Center for Consumer Freedom, another party is involved with the sensational study. “It appears to us that the Center for Science in the Public Interest was using the IBM ‘Smart Planet’ initiative to promote its food-safety white paper that came out in May. Beyond that, it’s hard to know who paid for what or whether the survey was balanced.”

That white paper begins: “The food-safety system in America is broken. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Americans may require hospitalization and as many as 5,000 may die this year from preventable food-borne illness.” You can guess what the rest of the white paper reads like.

The motive? CSPI wants Congress to pass the Food Safety Act, which would place new regulations on food producers and manufacturers. CSPI has been accused of routinely using scare tactics justified by “junk science” to influence the media and consumers.

Certainly no one wants consumers to be sickened by Salmonella or E. coli. Indeed, the food industries have spent millions of dollars to reduce the risk of food-borne illness — a risk that can never be eliminated. So, who does it serve to continue scaring consumers with rubbish research?