With the source of the E.coli crisis in Germany still a mystery, nearly four out of 10 Brits are worried about the safety of fruit and vegetables on sale in the UK and 45% have changed the way they prepare produce at home, a Harris Interactive survey for The Grocer can reveal.

Even though there is no evidence that food on sale in the UK has been affected, and experts insist fruit and veg here is safe, the outbreak has made many Brits nervous, with 38% saying they are worried about falling ill from eating fruit and veg bought in the UK, with 10% "very worried".

As a result, our survey shows consumers have started taking food hygiene more seriously: 17% say they have started washing fruit and veg for the first time following the crisis; 28% are now washing produce more thoroughly than in the past; and 17% are peeling fruit and veg they wouldn't have peeled ­before the outbreak.

Other precautions taken by consumers when preparing fresh produce in the home include boiling, frying or steaming veg they would have eaten raw before (11%); using separate chopping boards for preparing fruit and veg (8%); and cleaning work surfaces differently or more thoroughly than in the past (19%).

The outbreak is also affecting eating habits, with 7% of consumers saying they are cutting down or avoiding eating fresh fruit and vegetables altogether regardless of origin. The survey also indicates that 33% of consumers plan to eat less of some fresh produce over the next four weeks.

A source at one major UK supermarket confirmed this week that there had been a dip in salad sales but bean sprouts had not been affected.

Unsurprisingly, fresh produce from Germany has fallen particularly out of favour, with 16% of respondents saying they are eating less or avoiding it, while 8% of respondents have cut down or stopped eating fruit and veg from Spain. Although Spanish cucumbers have been cleared of being the cause of the outbreak, 7% of respondents said they will still avoid Spanish produce in the coming four weeks.

Nigel Jenney of the Fresh Produce Consortium said the survey showed how ­important it was for regulators to create clarity about the source of the outbreak. "This needs to be a concern for the industry but also for the UK government and Brussels," he said.

The Harris Interactive survey was based on interviews this week with 1,370 UK residents aged 18-plus, all of whom had heard of the E.coli outbreak.

Retailers blast ‘draconian’ hygiene shake-up
As European food safety experts search for the source of Germany's devastating E.coli outbreak, ­local authorities in this country are set to receive sweeping new powers over retailers after a two-year probe into the effectiveness of hygiene regulations.

Following a public inquiry ending in 2009 into an E.coli outbreak in Wales four years earlier, the Food Standards Agency wants to extend regulations previously reserved for meat plants and slaughterhouses to stores, allowing the temporary closure of operations such as deli counters without the need for court action.

It wants to give enforcement officers powers to ­react more quickly if they fear potential hygiene breaches such as cross-contamination, lack of cleanliness or unfit equipment. But retailers have condemned the plans as "draconian" and out of proportion. The British Retail Consortium claimed supermarkets could lose hundreds of thousands in lost trade, while smaller retailers could face ruin. It warned overstretched local authorities may misuse the Remedial Action Notices (RANs), which it claimed fly in the face of moves for co-operative working on food safety.

"Our members estimate that the closure of a delicatessen counter in a typical supermarket would cost the store about £50,000 per week," says Kara Thomas, food policy adviser for the BRC, who also complained that the agency had given no clarity over compensation for retailers found to be wrongly accused.

The FSA, which was this week considering responses to a consultation over its plans, said it would set out the next steps in the coming weeks. A spokesman said: "If we decide to extend RANs, it will be introduced as quickly as parliamentary procedure allows."