New research finds UK consumers highly value EU food safety standards

By Jane Byrne contact

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages/greenwatermelon
© GettyImages/greenwatermelon

Related tags: Brexit, ractopamine, beef hormones, FCR, chlorine

Recently released economic research from the University of Kent, University of Reading and IHS Markit, reveals the extent to which UK consumers dislike food produced using production methods such as hormones in beef, and chlorine washed chicken.

The research also reveals that UK consumers highly value food production that adheres to food safety standards set by the EU as well as UK produced food. The authors of the study say their findings are particularly relevant for post-Brexit trade deals and the ongoing debates about UK food standards.

“Our motivation was the need to understand and to take account of consumer preferences for food produced using prohibited production methods, especially in analysis of potential future trade deals.” 

Professor Iain Fraser, principle investigator and professor of agri-environmental economics at the University of Kent said the findings are a strong indicator of the expectations placed on food production by UK consumers. 

“Methods of food production that fall short in terms of animal welfare draw a negative response from UK consumers, whilst, in contrast, the presence of EU food safety standards on packaging results in a positive response from consumers. Data from the same project also suggests that consumers tend to strongly value EU food standards regardless of their attitudes towards Brexit.”

The team examined UK consumer preferences for four food products produced using technologies common in markets such as the US but currently not authorized in the UK. “Our four products are: hormone implants in beef; ractopamine, a feed additive which promotes leanness and improves feed conversion efficiency, in pig feed; chlorine washed chicken, and atrazine pesticide in corn production."

They used a stated preference discrete choice experiment (DCE) to estimate consumer’s willingness‐to‐pay (WTP) for foods with these attributes, using four food products to examine consumer attitudes - 500g chicken breast, 250g beef sirloin steak, 1kg pork loin joint and a two pack corn on the cob.

Uncovering UK consumer attitudes

In terms of how they went about identifying the UK consumer stance on such technologies, the researchers said 1,600 survey responses were collected online between December 2018 and January 2019.

A nationally representative sample based on socio‐economic characteristics was recruited with the help of a market research company.  

Overall, the sample data showed that they recruited slightly more males (51%) than females (49%) for all four DCE. The age composition of each DCE was close to a uniform distribution.

Households had a average of two people and almost 60% of respondents live in a household with children. In terms of household income, the sample mean was in the range £26,000 up to £31,199, which is consistent with the UK population, they added.

They asked all respondents about their shopping habits and attitudes to food and Brexit. More than 60% of respondents are responsible for all or most of the food and grocery shopping, they reported.

The team also asked respondents if they thought EU exit will have a positive, neutral or negative effect on food (in general) over the next couple of years.

The responses indicated that more respondents think that EU exit will have a negative effect on food (36%) than a positive effect (24%). Around 40% of respondents think the effect will be neutral or do not know.

Finally, they asked respondents if they thought that the quality of food can be judged by its price. Four out of five respondents agreed that the quality of food can be judged by price.

Findings 

The results confirmed that UK consumers dislike food produced using the production methods outlined. In contrast, participants positively valued EU food safety standards as well as the UK as a country of origin for beef, chicken, pork and corn production, found Fraser and colleagues.

“For one of the production methods examined, chlorine washed chicken, our results also reveal that a minority of consumers view this practice positively, which warrants further detailed research. The importance of food safety is also explicitly identified for the other three food products.”

In summary, the team said their results indicate the potential balance of requirements that UK trade negotiators should be seeking post‐Brexit if they are attempting to produce a trade deal that aligns with UK consumer preferences.

“Specifically, no matter what trade deals are concluded by the UK government in the future, it is clear that UK consumers display strong preferences for particular food attributes, so the use of clear and transparent food labelling should remove uncertainty with respect to purchase decisions.”

Pros and cons of the food production technologies under the spotlight 

Chlorine is used in certain countries such as the US to rinse whole chickens to kill microorganisms on the surface of the bird, specifically bacteria like Salmonella​ and Campylobacter​. Chicken treated this way have been excluded from the EU market since 1997. Importantly, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) does not view the use of chlorine in this context as unsafe.

The EU operates a ‘farm‐to‐fork’ approach to reduce meat‐borne bacteria at all points along the meat supply chain, to meet food safety requirements while also delivering higher animal welfare. Chlorine washing, on the other hand, reduces overall costs of production because less effort is made to control bacteria in the supply chain.

The use of additional hormones in beef production is common in countries such as the US and Australia. In beef production the hormone is typically released into the animal over time by means of an implant. Hormones allow the animal to grow bigger more rapidly while consuming less feed, which reduces the costs of production. Also, because of the resulting changes in the diet of the animals, they have a leaner carcass that in turn satisfies consumer preferences for less fatty meat and reduces the amount of cholesterol consumed.

Although the dosage levels of hormones are relatively low, the EU Commission banned the use of hormones in animal production on potential safety grounds.  

Pork producers in the US are allowed to use ractopamine as a feed additive to increase the rate of animal growth. Ractopamine - a beta agonist growth promoter - increases protein synthesis, making the animal more muscular, reducing the fat content of the meat and increasing the return per animal.

Unlike hormone implants, ractopamine does not affect the hormone status of the animal.

The use of ractopamine is currently not authorized in the EU because the EFSA argues that there is insufficient evidence to declare this product safe. More importantly, it is argued that this type of food additive has a detrimental impact on animal welfare through the way in which it changes animal growth rates and allows production systems to be organized, said the authors of this paper. 

Source: Journal of Agricultural Economics 

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/1477-9552.12410

Title: Do Consumers Really Care? An Economic Analysis of Consumer Attitudes Towards Food Produced Using Prohibited Production Methods

Authors: K Balcombe, D Bradley, I Fraser

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