After a food scandal consumers want to have their faith in the food system actively restored – and the best way to achieve this is for individual companies and policy-makers to be proactive in their own accountability, said the researchers.
The study, published in the Journal of Health, Risk & Society, looked at the psychological processes at work as UK and Irish consumers tried to make sense of the horsemeat scandal by attributing blame and responsibility.
Participants from the UK and Ireland were presented data from a variety of media sources in real-time as the horsemeat scandal unfolded and then invited to answer questions and make comments on the situation.
“There was a sense that holding individuals or groups accountable enabled them to believe that such incidents could and would be prevented,” the study said.
“For an organisation, early understanding of whether, why and how they are being blamed or held responsible for a crisis event is important, and this information should inform the development of effective communication strategies that support endeavours to mitigate negative consequences on confidence or reputation.”
Accept responsibility, increase confidence
Most participants praised one supermarket who ran a full-page newspaper advertisement early on in the scandal in which it admitted and apologised for its role in the contamination.
While participants said this did not absolve the supermarket from responsibility, it had increased their confidence in food products sold by the supermarket.
Consumers also expected accountability of those directly and indirectly responsible to be visible through measures such as factory closures, fines and prosecutions - even if these were slow in coming due to lengthy prosecution processes.
This was consumer' best safeguard in an otherwise opaque and complex supply chain with many different actors at work.
“The food production processes are not transparent to consumers, and consumers can only rely on labels, food quality assurance schemes, brands, retailers, and even price, as indicators of authenticity,
purity and quality. Accountability within the food processing sector is vital as it allows consumers place confidence in a system that is otherwise opaque to them.”
A number of participants said that blame should not be distributed equally within an organization as the ‘acts of deceit’ were often perpetrated by those in managerial positions with workers being unwitting accomplices.
One participant said: “It is sad to see 150 job losses to innocent people [when] this is the fault of management not doing their job properly and ensuring a ‘clean’ product be sold for human consumption - why did the meat processing plants jeopardise these jobs?”
A complex process of blame
"Consumers did not engage in a simplified process of blaming, but rather constructed hypotheses about who was responsible and why, and concluded that no single factor was at fault here, but rather, a complex variety of factors had ultimately led to the [scandal]," the authors concluded.
The food industry was seen as being deliberately deceitful whilst government food safety agencies were indirectly responsible because they were ‘asleep on the job’.
The complexity of the food supply chain was also seen as being at fault, allowing those who were directly responsible to act unnoticed.
Meanwhile a substantial minority said that consumer demand for cheap produce was also to blame – although those who argued this did not include themselves insisting that they opted for more expensive or home-cooked food, a process of victim blame known as ‘othering’.
However they said that some consumers with financial struggles had no choice but to buy cheaper meat – and this did not absolve food manufacturers, supermarkets and regulators from ensuring that it was safe or correctly labelled.
Source: Journal of Health, Risk & Society
Published online: 15 Apr 2015 DOI: 10.1080/13698575.2015.1030367
Conceptualising responsibility in the aftermath of the horsemeat adulteration incident: an online study with Irish and UK consumers
Authors: Áine Regan, Afrodita Marcu et al.