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Modeling Consumer Reactions to a Crisis: The Case of the Madcow Disease

Pennings, Joost M.E. , Brian Wansink, and Matthew M.E. Meulenberg (2002). A Note on Modeling Consumer Reactions to a Crisis: The Case of the Madcow Disease. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 19(2), 91–100. doi:10.1016/S0167–8116(02)00050–2.

How and why do consumers react to a food crisis? Food crises are gaining importance with the advent of the globalization of markets and increased media coverage. But the behavior of consumers in a crisis situation is not always consistent with the true level of risk they face.

These crises show the need for marketers to understand why and how consumers react to a crisis. An academic article published in the International Journal of Research in Marketing provides answers on how marketers can deal with product–related crisis, such as that involving food contamination or life–threatening design flaws. *

To answer these questions, three field studies were conducted in the context of mad cow disease (BSE) with 228 shoppers from the United States, 298 from Germany and 223 from the Netherlands.

The dramatic differences between the United States and the European countries are not surprising. The Dutch and Americans are less concerned about eating beef than the Germans and estimate their chance of contracting the Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CDJ) relatively lower. These different levels of concern are due to the fact that American and Dutch consumers are more trustful of the information from their governments than are the Germans. Indeed, 83% trust the FDA, making it the most trusted US government organization after the Supreme Court.

This study suggests two important outcomes: If consumers' reactions are mainly driven by risk perception, educational efforts need to improve the accuracy of consumers' knowledge about the probabilities of being exposed to the risk (e.g. , getting CJD). However, if the consumer response to the crisis is mainly driven by risk attitude, there are fewer options. In fact, the only tool available is to eliminate the risk (e.g. , slaughter all cows who might have BSE or check every single cow for BSE).

"Understanding these cross–cultural differences is particularly critical for managers and public officials who need to predict how and why consumers in different countries will respond to a crisis," said Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab.

Download a pre-print version of this article here.

*The study was conducted at the University of Illinois, former location of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.