While Floridians believe they do a fairly good job of keeping themselves safe from foodborne illnesses, they aren’t always clear about which foods, preparation techniques or cooking methods pose the biggest risks.

But they may be a bit overconfident.

A survey released by the University of Florida’s Public Issues in Education, PIE Center today shows that the state’s residents have many concerns about food safety and genetically modified foods but want to know more.

Survey respondents rated 10 public-issue topics based on their importance. The economy, health care and water were at the top of the list, deemed by respondents as most important. Food production landed just lower than housing and foreclosures and just ahead of immigration in terms of importance.

The October online survey reached 524 Florida adult residents. The responses were weighted to balance geographic, age, gender, race and ethnicity data to ensure the information was representative of the state’s population.

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. They also said they look for expiration dates on food and wash their hands before eating.

But 59 percent of respondents believe 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 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 happen 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 foodborne disease statistics suggest Floridians may give themselves more credit for their food-handling habits than they deserve. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show Florida’s foodborne-illness rate led the nation from 1998 to 2008, but this may be at least in part attributable to the outstanding 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, one of the survey’s authors, said respondents were also confused about foodborne illness risks.

Ninety-four percent of respondents had at least some worry 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 worried 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 misplaced concerns over factors that 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 suggests 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 firmly that they know which foods contain genetically modified ingredients.

And while 41 percent were firm 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, and there is overwhelming scientific consensus that the products pose no threat.

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.

UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has hired three new faculty members to form the base of a food systems hub that will look at the world’s food production systems overall but will have food safety as part of its focus.

The food survey was the last of four PIE Center surveys this year to track public opinion on agriculture and natural resources issues. They aim to track public opinion over time.

The PIE Center will host a webinar at 2 p.m. Dec. 17 to dive deeper into the food survey topic. Rumble and Archer will discuss the survey’s food safety results.

Then at 1 p.m.  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.

Learn more about the webinars at http://www.piecenter.com/easy-as-pie/.