Many residents of the United Kingdom lost faith in their government in March 1996, at least when it came to food safety. Prior to that date, they had been told that “mad cow disease” – which had been diagnosed in more than 150,000 cattle – posed no risk to people who ate beef. Then the government reversed its position and said a link between eating contaminated beef and a new neurological disease in young people could not be ruled out.
“It was a huge crisis that affected the entire European Union,” says U of G agricultural economics professor Andreas Boecker. Seven years later the disease would have significant effects in Canada as well, when the first Canadian case of mad cow disease was discovered in May 2003, and the United States banned the importation of Canadian cattle for more than two years.
The most enduring effect in Europe, though, has been continuing mistrust of government proclamations that something is “safe.”
Boecker was working as a post-doc in Germany and England in the late 1990s, participating in research to analyze the links between newspaper commentaries and reporting on mad cow disease and beef consumption among the publication’s readers. “You could clearly see the effects of the media: when something negative was published, sales of beef dropped,” he says. “That’s how I got interested in consumer behaviour.”
Born in Germany, Boecker completed his university studies in agricultural economics at the University of Kiel in Germany, then did a year as a post-doc at the University of Reading in England. Although his PhD had focussed on product differentiation strategies, his interests shifted towards better understanding how consumers respond to various food-related risks. He returned to Germany and worked at two universities there, studying topics such as consumer acceptance of genetically modified foods. In 2005, he came to the University of Guelph and started his research on consumer acceptance of functional foods that have added health benefits.
Although he has not worked directly on the issue of genetically modified foods in many years, Boecker continues to be interested in the issue and explains that the situation is very different in Canada and the United States than in Europe, where memories of the mad cow disease crisis are still fresh. “In Europe, people stopped trusting government and the agri-food industry on issues of food safety.”
As a result, the European Union took a cautious approach, requiring labelling of genetically modified foods and putting strict requirements on farmers that meant higher costs for those who opted to grow genetically modified crops. The American and Canadian governments, however, decided that the evidence did not show any risks from genetically modified foods and therefore did not require labelling. “However, because the technology was introduced without a public debate and is basically found in all processed food products, consumers in North America have recently started to get concerned about health issues and speak up in favour of labelling,” Boecker says.
He supports voluntary labelling approaches and thinks that such labels would not significantly harm sales and would increase consumer confidence. “People want transparency, they want to feel they know what is in their food,” he says. “Although empirical evidence has so far not supported claims of major health risks, the persistent rejection of labelling gives the perception that the companies are trying to hide something, and this increases skepticism about the food industry.”
Currently, Boecker’s research is focussed on traceability of agricultural and food products, where two major trends co-exist. First, in the European Union where mad cow disease is still on people’s minds, governments require livestock traceability for better emergency preparedness in case of an animal disease outbreak. Effective livestock traceability requires registering all animals and reporting their movements to a central database. That reduces the time and resources needed to contain an outbreak and thus helps to maintain or quickly regain access to export markets.
Boecker has been involved in cost-benefit analyses for various livestock sectors in Canada and points out some major challenges to such government-mandated traceability. Producers immediately incur the full costs of these measures but the costs are only offset in case of a major outbreak which, of course, everybody hopes will never happen.
Second, market-driven responses to changing consumer demand aim to build this farm-to-table tracking into grocery store purchases. This allows producers, manufacturers and retailers to differentiate their offerings from their competitors and also to become more efficient in logistics and warehouse management, as possible causes of waste and inefficiency can be more easily identified. The local food movement is part of this consumer demand trend.
“Some consumers like to buy meat directly from the farmer,” explains Boecker. “Then they can ask questions and feel assured to know where what they eat is coming from.” It’s straightforward for the producer to determine whether the additional costs and efforts pay off, such as through higher prices. Of course, the more ingredients and processing that go into the final product, the more difficult and expensive full traceability becomes.
Boecker points out that new issues will continue to arise in the food industry because it is a highly dynamic, innovative and increasingly globalized industry. A transparent and open approach to these issues that offers consumers real choices, he says, will benefit both consumers and food producers.