How consumer perceptions of food quality may overlook risks

Take a closer look. Are the fruits and vegetables in your salad really safe to eat? How do you know that the produce in your neighborhood grocer are fresh, uncontaminated by wastewater or pesticides? The truth is, the biggest and shiniest fruits and vegetables aren’t always the safest to eat. For this reason, in many parts of the world, safety measures, controls and certifications ensure the quality of our produce and help us avoid unseen health risks.

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Photo credit: Felix Antonio

 

But, as IWMI scientists point out in Consumer Perceptions of Fruit and Vegetable Quality, developing countries face multiple challenges when it comes to ensuring food safety. In response to changing urban diets, farmers are growing perishable vegetables closest to urban markets, despite that the irrigation water is commonly heavily polluted. Legislations, controls and capacity development are hardly keeping pace with these highly profitable, informal farming systems, which means that possible health risks are not communicated to the public, often leading to serious consequences. According to Ghana’s Ministry of Food and Agriculture and the World Bank estimates, more than 200,000 Ghanaian cases of diarrhea are potentially caused by food-borne diseases linked to diarrhea as well as hepatitis, typhoid and cholera, costing the economy an estimated USD 35 million every year.

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Which one would you buy not knowing that the larger crop was irrigated with wastewater?

 

How can consumers in West Africa trust in the food they eat? Certification schemes for food safety have been suggested, but, according to the new report, they are unlikely to be successful in West Africa, where the consumers rely on subjective attributes to judge food quality. “In the context of West Africa such [certification] schemes have a low probability of success—beyond a niche market—as food is judged healthy by its good looks and not by possible, and, unfortunately, invisible, risks,” says researcher Pay Drechsel. For example, in Ghana, consumers reported that they looked for vegetables that were free of damage from insects, fresh, big, hard and free of dirt.

This means that vegetables grown organically or biologically, or crops irrigated with freshwater are probably less likely to be bought if they do not look as neat and large as crops grown with synthetic pesticides or nutrient-rich wastewater,

says Drechsel.

Yet, West Africans are genuinely interested in safe and healthy food. When asked if they would buy vegetables irrigated with wastewater, the majority of Ghanaians surveyed said that they would not, and between 40 and 60% of people thought it important to know where vegetables were produced in order to avoid contaminated vegetables. However, their interest and expressed willingness to pay does not translate into action when buying produce. The same applies to pesticides. In Kumasi, Ghana, 50% of people surveyed reported being concerned with pesticides, but only 5% said this concern has prompted them to change their buying habits. In another study in Ghana, 60-80% the respondents pointed out that even though they would like to stop buying vegetables from the market, they did not know where to find safer vegetables.

What are some ways to support consumer’s awareness and decision making about their food? To protect the public health, alternative measures are needed to support consumers’ risk awareness and decision making. Consumer Perceptions of Fruit and Vegetable Quality looks at ways to initiate and encourage behavioral change, including corporate social responsibility models, incentive systems and social marketing of safe practices, to address potential food safety risks from farming in and peri-urban areas.

Consumer Perceptions of Fruit and Vegetable Quality: Certification and Other Options for Safeguarding Public Health in West Africa


This work is supported by GlobE – UrbanFoodPlus Project, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in Germany and undertaken as part of the CGIAR Research Program on Water Land and Ecosystems (WLE)