The Challenges of Influencing Consumer Behavior to Improve Food Safety


by Vivian Hoffmann and Emily Wu | September 1, 2020

In Kenya, levels of exposure to aflatoxin—a contaminant produced by a fungus found on maize and other crops—are among the highest in the world, owing to high maize consumption and agroecological conditions in parts of the country. While a limited amount of aflatoxin consumption is not harmful, chronic exposure is a significant contributor to the global cancer burden. There is also evidence to suggest that aflatoxin may contribute to low birth weight, stunting, and suppressed immune response.

Reducing aflatoxin and other forms of contamination with foodborne hazards is particularly challenging for many developing countries with ineffective public health and regulatory systems. Although an official standard for aflatoxin levels has been set by the Kenya Bureau of Standards, testing and enforcement are very weak.

Consumers can play a particularly important role in food safety in such situations—if they can identify safety issues and signals of trustworthiness, and then act in a way that demands improved safety standards from the private market and enforcement from their governments. Advertising, discounts, and other actions by food sellers can impact consumer awareness.

A new paper, published in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, investigates the impact that advertising and discount promotions had on the demand for an aflatoxin-tested brand of maize flour in Central and Eastern Kenya. In theory, advertising of compliance with safety standards, paired with consumer demand for safer products, could help reduce consumption of aflatoxin and provide an incentive for private firms to invest in safer products.

However, our results suggest limited potential for the private sector to harness consumer demand for safer food in a low- to middle‐income country. Learning about a safer product, either through marketing messages or direct experience with the good, did not appear lead to lasting effects on demand.

We partnered with a mid‐sized Kenyan maize milling firm that agreed to subject its aflatoxin testing procedures to third-party verification and to include a label indicating this on its product. The firm's pricing strategy, which targeted the lower end of the branded maize flour market, remained unchanged.

First we looked at a marketing‐only campaign featuring a product label stating the third‐party food safety verification. This allowed us to examine whether food safety information alone affects sales. We saw purchases increase by 22 to 36 percent during the first two weeks of active promotion, but by the third week of the campaign, no effect of marketing could be seen.

We also examined the impacts of combining the marketing intervention with a temporary in-store discount. The discount (approximately 10 percent) was intended to induce consumers of cheaper brands to switch to the promoted brand. While the discount did lead to elevated sales of around 50 percent above baseline levels for several weeks after the discount ended, this effect also diminished over time.

Overall, our results indicate that temporary discounts, advertising campaigns, and safety labels have a limited ability to address aflatoxin consumption in Kenya. While they do have some impact on purchasing behavior, this lasts only a few weeks beyond the duration of the intervention. There are many potential reasons for this, including the advertising campaign not being sufficiently informative, not lasting long enough, coming from a private market player rather than government source, etc. Further research could determine whether other sources or types of information hold greater promise for changing consumer behavior, but our findings suggest that the potential for private market labeling and promotions alone to materially impact aflatoxin safety in formal markets is limited.

In informal markets, a grain’s observable characteristics play an important role in purchasing decisions

Another recent study, in Food Policy, examined the relationship between observable food quality, aflatoxin contamination, and price. In an informal market, quality cannot be judged based on labels and packaging. Instead, consumers make decisions based on observable characteristics such as kernel discoloration and breakage.

While these characteristics can signal aflatoxin contamination, our research suggests that consumers did not understand the relationship between the observable quality of food and its safety very well.

Our study looked at survey data collected from 1500 small-scale hammer mills in rural Kenya. Typically, consumers bring grain they have purchased or grown to a hammer mill to be ground into flour. From this data, we were able to examine the influence of observable and unobservable characteristics of the maize on consumers’ subjective perceptions of quality.

We found that consumers were more likely to avoid discolored maize than maize with broken kernels.  However, aflatoxin contamination in maize is highly correlated with damage to the hard, outer layer of the kernel. Maize in which over 10 percent of kernels show breakage contains approximately twice the level of aflatoxin as maize which is free of damage.

Even if consumers did not appear to weigh observable characteristics in a way that maximized food safety, knowing that they use this information to judge quality can aid efforts to improve food safety. With this insight, policy makers and food safety advocates can focus efforts on educational campaigns that teach consumers which observable characteristics can best inform purchasing decisions.


These studies show some of the challenges in raising consumer awareness of the risks of aflatoxin—and of food safety in general. In both informal and formal markets, existing consumer awareness and demand do not appear to be sufficient to drive major improvements in food safety. More research is needed to understand how to empower consumers with the tools and information they need to make informed, safety-conscious purchasing decisions. An important next step in this research agenda will be to test the impact of providing information on the relative safety of alternative food products or vendors. Identifying credible sources of information, such as governments or independent certification authorities, will be critical to the success of such efforts.

Vivian Hoffmann is a Senior Research Fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division. She conducts research under A4NH's Food Safety flagship. Emily Wu is a former IFPRI Communications Intern. 

Funding for the marketing study was provided by A4NH and by the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, established through the Higher Education Solutions Network of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Funding for the observable food quality study was provided by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability; Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD) through its Stimulating Agricultural and Rural Transformation (StART) initiative; the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) through Biosciences Eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub, and A4NH.

This post originally appeared on the IFPRI website.


In this piece originally published on The Conversation, the authors explore steps to address food safety, particularly in the context of informal markets.

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