A new survey for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food has found that food supply safety is one of the most important among six major issues.

When asked to describe the issues on a scale from "not at all important" to "very important," 80 percent of polled Wasatch Front residents ranked education as very important. But 70 percent ranked a safe food supply in the "very important" category, outpacing 67 percent for crime, 65 percent for the economy, 61 percent for health care and 47 percent for the environment.

The department commissioned Dan Jones & Associates to survey 210 residents of Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties in June and July. The margin of error is plus or minus 7 percent.

The Dan Jones poll was the first ever for the department. "It was conducted primarily to help us in the updating of our strategic plan," department spokesman Larry Lewis said.

On a five-point scale of "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree," the majority of people surveyed — 69 percent — somewhat agreed or agreed with the statement that "local, state and federal government agencies do a good job of inspecting our food and ensuring its safety. Another 69 percent strongly agreed or agreed that a "small portion of the existing tax on food should be spent" for food supply safety. The poll did not specify how much of the tax should be used.

Will the department get permission through the Legislature to divert more money to protect the food supply? Lewis said the survey question wasn't meant to suggest such an idea.

"That wasn't the reason for it," he said. "It was one of 62 questions we asked. We were wondering what do people think about protecting their food supply."

Two divisions within the Department of Agriculture and Food inspect farming and ranching operations in Utah. About 100 people work for the two divisions.

"We're certainly seeing more reports of contaminated food," Lewis said. "It's uncertain if that's getting more attention (through the media) or if our health system is able to detect it better now."

Food safety has been on the minds of Utahns since a salmonella outbreak beginning in April that has sickened more than 1,300 people in the United States and cost the produce industry more than $200 million. At the beginning of July, the federal government blamed tomatoes for the outbreak, but now it has been linked to jalapeno peppers grown in Nuevo Leon, Mexico.

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