Understanding Consumer Food Safety Beliefs to Inform Evidence-Based, Human-Centered Programs
Food safety is the assurance that food will not cause harm to the consumer when it is prepared or eaten according to its intended use. At least, that’s the scientific definition. But what does it mean to consumers who make decisions about what foods to buy and eat? And how do they act to ensure their food is safe in contexts, like lower-income countries, where safety can’t always be assumed?
These questions have received surprisingly little attention in research studies, which mostly focus on understanding whether consumers “know” key facts about food safety and “practice” behaviors recommended to keep food safe. Such studies are useful, but inherently come from an “expert,” scientific perspective, reflecting the perspectives of the researchers who design them — and requiring respondents to frame answers in relation to those assumptions.
In contrast, ethnographic methods (e.g., in-depth interviews and observations) are used in social sciences to examine topics related to values and culture in depth. To better understand how these types of research methods can contribute to food safety programming, the USAID-funded, Feed the Future initiative’s Evidence and Action Towards Safe, Nutritious Food (EatSafe) program undertook a synthesis of ethnographic literature related to food safety, which was recently published in the journal Appetite.
After synthesizing 22 papers from four continents, the authors identified three common themes on how consumers conceive of and act on food safety:
- Cultural concepts related to food safety often take the form of binary oppositions. For example, several studies in Asia identified how “inside” foods produced in the household are seen as safe, whereas “outside” foods from restaurants or street vendors are not, while work in Africa identified a similar distinction between “natural” foods (grown in traditional ways, seen as safe) and “unnatural” or “factory” foods (seen as unsafe).
- Consumers actively work to reduce risk. Establishing relationships of trust with specific vendors was the most frequently reported risk-reduction strategy. This trust may be based as much on appearances as actual product quality, but it lets consumers purchase food without worry and with some sense of control. Some consumers also exert control by processing their own food — such as by buying whole grains and milling them themselves to avoid adulterated flours. Shortening supply chains (e.g., traveling to the countryside to purchase vegetables from farmers) is also used to reduce points of contamination.
- Economic and cultural constraints limit the extent to which consumers can act on their food safety knowledge and preferences. For example, in cultural contexts where women do not go to market, their ability to make decisions related to food safety is limited, and poorer consumers may be unable to access “buyers clubs” that let urban consumers purchase directly from rural farmers.
In addition to shedding light on consumer understanding and action, the paper highlights the relevance and value of ethnographic-type methods for studying food safety. This lesson is being internalized by EatSafe, which has already undertaken an ethnographic study in Nigeria and is in the process of one in Ethiopia. The resulting insights will help the program develop evidence-based, human-centered interventions that leverage consumer demand to improve the safety of foods in traditional markets.