An analysis of the dioxin food tainting scandal in Germany in late 2010 to early 2011, by researchers in Germany, Switzerland and Canada, combined reporting of the shopping habits and media consumption of more than 2,5000 households from GfK Consumer Scan data with an extensive media survey from the period.
The dioxin scandal – where unsafe levels of the chemical were found in consumer chicken and pork products, after tainted animal feed entered the food chain in late 2010 – was covered extensively by German media in early 2011, and the researchers analysed this coverage to create a Food Scandal Index for the period.
Coverage curbs consumption…
A gross analysis showed pork chop and chicken filet consumption fell by 50% and 41% over the period of the scandal, compared to purchases a year earlier. Pork chops in particular saw a strong fall in demand in the first three weeks of the scandal, coinciding with 86% of the media coverage, according to the paper’s authors, writing in the journal Food Policy.
“The results support our hypothesis that media coverage of the health safety risks associated with this food scandal exerted a significant negative influence on households’ probability of consuming any of the affected meat products,” they wrote.
“Moreover, households [which] maintained positive consumption levels [reduced] their purchases for both products directly implicated by the media significantly. A one-unit increase in the [Food Scandal Index] reduced the probability of purchase for pork by 0.7% and for chicken by 0.6%,” the authors added.
However, the change in actual quantities of meat purchased was small for these households was small, with pork declining 0.021kg and chicken by 0.007kg per week.
… But not as much as expected
The authors suggested consumers may have been overly familiar with the scandal to change their habits: “Prior media coverage and information on Dioxin contamination may have contributed to desensitising consumers in regards to the media induced shock when Dioxin contamination was eventually confirmed in fresh meat products.
“Overall, the empirical results reveal that the 2011 German Dioxin scandal did not trigger a magnitude of response in demand that could have been expected from the intense media coverage of this incident.
“We find strong evidence of a dominant effect of habit persistence that appears to have over-compensated the influence of media coverage and that may stand behind only marginal adjustments in the demand for both affected products over the comparably short period of the Dioxin scandal,” they added.
The authors speculated that a lack of noticeable health effects from the scandal may have dampened many consumers’ responses.
They also noted that while pork chop consumption preferences were relatively homogenous, there was a lot of variety in households’ chicken-buying preferences. While the authors suggested this could partly be explained by the greater variety of chicken filet products on the market, they noted this also pointed to “unobserved heterogeneity” within the consumer panel.
Consumer habits unaffected
“Our results provide evidence of the role habit persistence and often neglected unobserved heterogeneity play in assessing household responses to media information in the broader context of emerging public food safety and health concerns,” they wrote.
“In this context greater attention should be devoted particularly to role of household risk perceptions and its potential associations with media usage patterns and household’s receptiveness to media information,” the authors added.
But they warned of potential problems if consumers continue to become unresponsive to food scandals: “As household desensitise to adverse media report regarding the safety of their food supply, both regulators and the food industry need to consider the potential cumulative effects of reoccurring risk events that have been highlighted in studies centred on consumer trust and food scandals.”
Source: Food Policy
Published online ahead of print, doi: 10.1016/j.foodpol.2016.09.005
“Food scandals, media attention and habit persistence among desensitised meat consumers”
Authors: Rieger, J; Kuhlgatz, C; Anders, S