What people don't know about food safety may be harmful - and what they think they know may not be accurate.

Exaggerated fears about pesticide residues are prompting many consumers to make some unhealthy - and expensive - choices, according to Christine Bruhn, a consumer food marketing specialist with the University of California-Davis.Bruhn spoke Sept. 8 at Land Grant Days at Utah State University.

Fear of pesticide residues has prompted many consumers to shun fresh fruits and vegetables, even though they are essential in a healthful diet, Bruhn said. Others pay premium prices for "organic" produce that may not be pesticide-free.

Bruhn noted that more than 80 percent of consumers think pesticide residues are a serious hazard, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says pesticide residues are not a public health hazard and the National Research Council reports that the benefits of eating produce outweigh any risk from pesticide residues.

"Fervor about pesticides" could cause consumers to eat less healthful diets, Bruhn warned. "The media have a profound effect on consumer attitudes and knowledge," she said, citing the recent Alar controversy which reduced sales of apples by $100 to $200 million. According to several surveys, a significant proportion of consumers avoid foods that they think are likely to be contaminated by pesticides.

"Although risk assessment isn't a perfect science and information on toxicity isn't as comprehensive as we would like, pesticide residues in food do not appear to be a health hazard," Bruhn said.

"We need to give consumers information so they can control their exposure and their safety," she said.

Consumers are apparently eager for the information. In 1989, almost half the consumers surveyed said they looked for information about food safety.

Bruhn said the greatest food safety risk is microbiological contamination, which makes millions of Americans ill every year and kills 9,000 annually.