A report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that consumers respond to foodborne illness outbreaks differently depending on the severity.
The case study, produced by Fred Kuchler, Ph.D., an economist with USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), compared warnings about cantaloupes issued in 2011 and again in 2012.
The first recall was due to Listeria monocytogenes and the second was from two Salmonella serotypes. Listeria is a more deadly pathogen than Salmonella, and Kuchler found that consumers responded more strongly to the 2011 recall, suggesting that they make some distinctions among pathogens and health risks.
That 2011 Listeria outbreak, associated with Colorado cantaloupe, remains the most deadly foodborne illness outbreak to occur so far during this century and was officially blamed for 33 deaths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Listeria infections from those cantaloupe may also have been a contributing factor in another 10 deaths. In addition, one woman pregnant at the time of her illness had a miscarriage.
In 2011, consumers temporarily reduced their purchases of cantaloupes, even after accounting for the influence of prices and income. Expenditures on cantaloupe were $3.9 million (6-7 percent) lower than normal, and cantaloupe purchases were 6.2 million pounds lower over a four-week period.
Consumers generally understood that other melons were safe, and sales of watermelon and honeydew melon rose in the weeks after cantaloupe was implicated.
“Shifting melon demand indicates that some consumers took defensive actions to protect themselves,” the report added.
In 2012, when federal health and safety officials again recalled some cantaloupe, this time from a farm in Indiana and for Salmonella contamination, consumer response was more muted.
The report also noted that the Listeria outbreak received substantially more media coverage than the Salmonella one. Four networks covered the Listeria outbreak, while just two covered the Salmonella outbreak, Kuchler wrote. Also, reports on the Listeria outbreak spanned 35 days, he noted, while the Salmonella one was only covered for two days.
“It is not surprising that the news media devoted more coverage to the listeriosis outbreak than to the salmonellosis outbreak, given consumers’ greater familiarity with salmonellosis and its lower fatality rate. Two news archives were consulted to measure relative interest in the two outbreaks,” the report stated.
“As long as consumers are concerned about the various foodborne illness risks they face and are informed about the severity of those risks, it would follow that observed market responses can be attributed to news about changes in risks,” according to the report.
“The differing retail market responses point to consumers recognizing that Listeria monocytogenes poses more profound risks that identified Salmonella serotypes,” he added, noting the “extraordinarily high” fatality rate among the elderly from Listeria.
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