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Existing Food Habits and Recent Choices Lead to Disregard of Food Safety Announcements

Cao, Ying, David Just, Calum Turvey, and Brian Wansink (2015). Existing Food Habits and Recent Choices Lead to Disregard of Food Safety Announcements. Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics, 63(4), 491-511. doi: 10.1111/cjag.12089

Studies have found that many people still consume food that they know has been recalled, but the reasons for this are unclear. In this study, we investigated consumer risk attitudes and responses to food safety information.

We used an incentive auction compatible mechanism which examined consumers’ willingness to pay under different informational settings. Dissonance feelings were induced by randomly assigning food commitment and information exposure. In the control group, the subjects were asked to bid for three chocolate candy bars simultaneously and would have a chance to win and purchase any one of the three. In the treatment group, the subjects were asked to freely choose one out of the three chocolate candy bars to bid and would only have a chance to win the chosen item. Information on an Aflatoxin food-borne pathogen was used as conflicting food safety risk information. Participants were told that the three chocolate candy bars had different levels of Aflatoxin risk. Participants also received information sheets about Aflatoxin food safety risks. Participants then indicated their willingness to pay certain amounts of money for the candy bars they chose to bid on.

We found that consumers were willing to pay more money when they chose to commit to the candy bars (treatment group) than when they were randomly assigned (control group), suggesting cognitive dissonance. The differences between the consumers’ willingness to pay between the two groups increased as food safety information was given. On average, the gap of willingness to pay was about 23.7 cents (roughly 44%) higher for the high-risk food item. Those who made an earlier commitment were more reluctant to change their willingness to pay even when given more risky information, supporting the confirmatory bias theory. The consumers’ existing habits and psychological biases made them less responsive to public information. Thus, in terms of market responses, demand curves were less likely to shift down in the presence of food safety risks. These findings suggest that consumers are less responsive to food safety information due to their existing habits, preferences, or even temporary consumption choices.