By Jens Lönneker
Do food scares alter consumer behavior?
Spoiled meat, imitation cheeseor composite ham: Food industry scares seem to represent a very recent phenomenon.But do food scares really impact consumer behavioror are they simply hyped by the media?
Current studiesconducted for the BVE * and HDE** show that food scares leave their “mark” on consumersand trigger changes in buying habits oft the majority of shoppers. Sixty-onepercent of respondents stated that they had changed their shopping behavior asa result of food scares, and eighty-two percent expect the number of scares toincrease.
However, the spectrumof observed consumer behavior is very broad. Not all consumers have alteredtheir shopping routine. Attitudes range from “business as usual” to temporary or even permanent changes in their foodpurchases.
But how do consumersreally tick?
Our qualitative research shows that consumers reveal a strongpropensity to support regulations and “standards” they perceive as being designedto reduce the likelihood of food scares occurring. Organizations such asGreenpeace, Food Watch, BUND and even Stiftung Warentest and Ökotest enjoy ahigh degree of trust since consumers see them as acting in a supervisory role.
Consumers are reluctantto rely on self-regulation by manufacturers and retail due to their low levelof general trust in the food industry. In addition, consumers usually show a positiveattitude towards media reports which expose “food safety and hygiene issues” -even though many respondents feel that the media tend to exaggerate.
Leading opinions inthis context are shaped by ascetic, anti-indulgent positions towards food (reducedmeat consumption, critical attitudes regarding fat, sugar content, etc.).
The psychologicalbackground to this trend lies in the perception that societal norms havealtered in recent years, and now tend to favor indulgence, irresponsibility anddebauchery. A little restraint and asceticism now seem virtuous and exemplaryto many, even if they don’t actually practice these virtues themselves.
Paradoxically, thistrend towards more virtuous eating behavior requires scares to confirm one’s ownrelevance. Consumers reveal a fundamental disposition towards assuming that scaresexist and the need to “expose” them.
What can be done?
The tendency to payattention to food scares is more likely to increase. As will the tendency of organizations and media to find and expose scares. Thisaccompanies the risk that the pressure toestablish more food regulations and imposed standards will increase.
The main step to be taken is to build trust. The food manufacturingand retailing industries need to communicate activities designed to improvefood quality and credibility more strongly and aggressively than before. Researchconducted by rheingold suggests that honesty and an open dialogue withconsumers and NGOs may well create the basis from which the industry can boost credibility.