Consumer response to the outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy has involved a complex balancing of risk and price
Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) has officially been recognised in the UK since 1986, a year after the first signs of disease amongst the UK herd. It was only in the 90s, though, that a link with the human illness, Creutzfeld-Jakob Disease (CJD) was investigated, leading to the famous announcement on 20 March 1996, by the health secretary in Parliament, that there was a ‘probable’ link between BSE in cattle and a new form of CJD, known as “new variant CJD”. This was the day that the floodgates opened. It has been described as Britain’s ‘most costly peace time catastrophe’, although that might have changed since the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. I, fortunately, was working at the time as a dietitian in Health Promotion. My predecessor at the Meat and Livestock Commission, Amanda Wynne, was not so lucky.
That Government announcement precipitated an unprecedented response from both the media and consumers — the two obviously being inextricably linked. There was an immediate reduction in sales of some 30%, with consumers avoiding beef in its most obvious form, ie roasts and casseroles, but not meat products so much. This immediately gave a hint of consumers’ misunderstanding, as the incidence of BSE was much higher in dairy herds, from which meat products are more likely to be made, with prime cuts coming from beef cattle, which remained largely unaffected. There had also been a ban on the use of what are called ‘specified bovine offals’ since 1989, which included the spinal cord, thymus and brain, so it was likely that any possible transfer to humans occurred before this time. Stopping eating beef now was not really going to help.
At what price?
But what price are consumers willing to pay to reduce risk? Inevitably the price of beef plummeted shortly after the announcement in the Commons — one supermarket cut its prices by 50 %. The effect on consumers was dramatic — beef sales went through the roof! Some supermarkets saw a ten-fold increase in sales. There was suddenly a widespread acceptance of risk because it came at a bargain price. These are two examples of quotes that appeared in the press at the time: “There are still a lot of people who are buying beef and where it is reduced they are buying it in quite large quantities,” said a spokesman from Tesco. “I’m not all that confident, but it’s a good price and I’m willing to take the risk,” said one customer who bought half-price steaks. And well she might — the British Medical Association published figures at the time showing the risk of dying from CJD was 1 in 10 million (equal to being hit by lightning), compared to 1 in 8000 for a fatal road traffic accident or 1 in 200 for dying from smoking 10 cigarettes a day. I remember one person saying to me that they would buy the cheap beef and put it in the freezer until the scare was over!
There was clearly a point at which people were willing to trade perceived risk for cheaper food. It has been paralleled with the effect on the air industry following the September 11 disaster. In the month following, British Airways saw its passenger numbers to America fall by 32%. In contrast, the budget airlines have seen their trade boom. Admittedly, most of those airlines in the UK do not fly to America and you could argue terrorists are more likely to target the big carriers flying out of New York or Heathrow, than those flying to Tenerife from a minor UK airport like Luton or Stanstead. But people are remarkably consistent in the way they balance risk with price — consider your own behaviour regarding smoke alarms, bike helmets or your car tyres.
This has also been highlighted recently during the GE debate. Actually buying organic produce in a supermarket for example, does not always reflect reported behaviour.
Despite these quirks of human nature, beef consumption did drop overall during 1996, and it was hardly surprising that some people were anxious about eating beef when on a Friday the Government said it would give guidance on feeding children beef, but not until the following Monday! There was a considerable reduction in the consumption of beef from March 1996; this was not entirely due to a reduction in household consumption. Two hundred and three out of 204 local councils banned beef from their menus in March 1996, which most notably included schools, but also social services. Interestingly, a similar reaction has been seen in France in 2000, after a confirmed case of vCJD (though not their first), with beef being taken off all school menus and beef sales falling by 20-50%.
The response since
Since 1996, consumer confidence in British beef has increased dramatically. Continuing with the analogy of the air industry, it is said to be safest to fly the day after a plane crash — I think that is true in NZ too. Britain has had to examine its procedures in tremendous detail, and consumers are recognising the changes that have been made, and are keen to buy a product in which they now have confidence. Beef sales are not only back up, but exceeding pre-BSE levels. A Mori poll in 1999, of perceived “threats to health”, showed the fear of BSE at the bottom of the list, well below the major killers of cancer and heart disease.
Having been one of the first fast food chains that stopped using British beef in 1996, McDonalds threw its weight behind an industry initiative in 1998, aiming to increase consumption of the British product. Following the launch of this “Buy British” campaign, two thirds of those surveyed preferred to buy meat produced in the UK, 40 % ranking it “very important”.
But in October 1998, 170 local authority bans still remained in place. This triggered a high-profile campaign by the industry, enlisting the support of Government, the Food Standards Agency and a well-respected scientist, Hugh Pennington. This was required to counter the “well, you would tell us it’s safe, wouldn’t you” sort of reaction. Within a month, 56 local authorities had lifted their bans, and within six months only three remained. Today, just two bans remain, plus a couple in primary schools. The key issue in terms of returning to beef was traceability, even outweighing price — though only just. Consumers needed reassurance, focused on identified consumer concerns. Several quality assurance schemes were introduced throughout the food chain, most notably one for mince, introduced quite soon after the crisis began. It was a rosette developed for use on mince, stating that the product did not contain offal, and was made from cattle less than 30 months of age. Consumers had become concerned about the quality of mince, and this quality mark worked well to reassure them. It was later extended to burgers as well. Consumers in the UK are as responsive to stickers on packs as they are here. Even if they don’t fully understand what they mean, it is a symbol of quality. Food safety is still a major concern for consumers in the UK — highlighted by the latest consumer attitudes survey, carried out by the Food Standards Agency — but it is broader than just BSE. Unsurprisingly, food poisoning is of greatest concern in Scotland, reflecting the site of the E. coli outbreak, also in 1996, in which 20 elderly people died. But over 90 per cent of those surveyed eat meat on a regular basis, with true vegetarianism still below 5% of the population.
Reaction in NZ?
So how did consumers react here at home? It appears to have been perceived very much as an overseas problem, and if anything helped our product. The fact that NZ is BSE-free reinforced consumers’ confidence in the NZ product and the meat production systems employed here, ie grass-based and extensive. What of the farmers?
In conclusion, I would ask you to spare a thought for the farmers. By March 2001 there had been 95 cases of vCJD in Britain. And whilst no one would deny it is a hideous illness, compare this to the number of suicides amongst farmers and the figures pale dramatically. In 1999, there was more than one suicide a week amongst farmers, totalling 400 over the last few years. This, as far as I know, never made the headlines.
Grateful thanks go to former colleagues at the Meat and Livestock Commission for supplying information for this paper, in particular Chris Lamb, consumer marketing manager and Tony Goodger, trade sector manager.
This article is reprinted with permission from the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society of New Zealand 27, 97-99.