Chinese Consumers' Concerns About Food Safety

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  • This article was downloaded by: [University of Cambridge]On: 13 October 2014, At: 07:04Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

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    Chinese Consumers' Concerns About Food SafetyXiaoyong Zhang aa Agricultural Economics Research Institute (LEI), Wageningen University and ResearchCenter (WUR) , P.O. Box 29703, 2502 LS, The Hague, The NetherlandsPublished online: 08 Sep 2008.

    To cite this article: Xiaoyong Zhang (2005) Chinese Consumers' Concerns About Food Safety, Journal of International Food &Agribusiness Marketing, 17:1, 57-69, DOI: 10.1300/J047v17n01_04

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  • Chinese Consumers ConcernsAbout Food Safety:

    Case of TianjinXiaoyong Zhang

    ABSTRACT. The objective of this study is to gain an insight to Chineseconsumers knowledge and concerns over food safety from a case study inTianjin city. The results indicate that Chinese consumers are very muchconcerned about food safety, particularly with regard to vegetables anddairy products. Chinese consumers know little about genetically modified(GM) and organic foods. Empirical results show that young and highly ed-ucated men are the main consumers of the so called pollution-free food,promoted by the Chinese government, and highly educated and vari-ety-seeking consumers are most likely to buy GM food products in the fu-ture. [Article copies available for a fee from The Haworth Document DeliveryService: 1-800-HAWORTH. E-mail address: Website: 2005 by The Haworth Press, Inc. Allrights reserved.]

    KEYWORDS. Chinese consumers, food safety, Tianjin, geneticallymodified and organic food, pollution-free food

    Dr. Xiaoyong Zhang is affiliated with the Agricultural Economics Research Insti-tute (LEI), Wageningen University and Research Center (WUR), P.O. Box 29703,2502 LS The Hague, The Netherlands (E-mail: xiaoyong.zhang@wur.nl).

    The author is grateful for the comments of Jikun Huang, Frank van Tongeren, ThomAchterbosch and Ben Kamphuis. The comments and suggestions from two anonymousreferees are much appreciated.

    This research was carried out under the framework of a research project titled Sus-tainable Vegetable Production and Marketing in Tianjin China, financed by the Dutchagency Senter.

    Journal of International Food & Agribusiness Marketing, Vol. 17(1) 2005Available online at http://www.haworthpress.com/web/JIFAM

    2005 by The Haworth Press, Inc. All rights reserved.Digital Object Identifier: 10.1300/J047v17n01_04 57

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  • FOOD SAFETY:AN EMERGING CONTEMPORARY ISSUE

    Food safety, together with globalisation and technological revolution, isone of the key emerging issues in food policy research (Pinstrup-Andersen,1999). After the outbreak of a series of food-borne pathogens, such as E. coli,BSE, and Salmonella in the 1980s, consumers confidence in food safety fellto an all-time low. As a result, a pool of research has been focusing on consum-ers perception of food safety and willingness to pay for safe foods (Hensonand North 2000; 1998; Nayga, 1996; Wessells and Anderson, 1995, etc.). Shinet al. (1992) developed an experimental method to measure consumers will-ingness to pay (WTP). The results indicate that for each meal that may be con-taminated with Salmonella, Iowa State University students would pay anadditional 55 cents to upgrade to a safer product. In a pesticide-residue risk re-duction study, Buzby et al. (1995) have found that consumers WTP for safergrapefruit was significantly related to consumers age, income and attitude.By using contingent valuation method, Fu et al. (1999) found that consumerswho are particularly concerned about health risks, such as those who purchasehydroponic vegetables, have greater WTP for reducing the chance of cancerassociated with pesticide residues. Furthermore, the results show that the mostsignificant factors that determine the WTP for risk reduction are the respon-dents health condition and concerns about the cost and quality of vegetables.

    CHINESE FOOD QUALITY AND SAFETY

    Until some years ago, the Chinese government had not put food safety onits agenda. The priority had been to produce enough food for the whole nationand to maintain a high level of grain self-sufficiency. The issue of Chinesefood security has been widely studied by a group of scholars (for an overview,consult Huang et al., 1999). Food quality and safety have only recently be-come a hot issue in China. Two factors account for this new challenge. First,with the rising level of living standards, Chinese consumers are no longer sat-isfied with quantity alone: they are demanding better quality assurance. How-ever, a series of food scandals in recent years have shocked consumers andhave reduced consumers confidence.

    Second, the rapid development of international trade in China should betaken into account. As China is now a WTO member, disputes over tariff tradebarriers are gradually diminishing. Technical trade barriers, such as foodsafety issues, will prevail. Export products which do not comply with the stan-dards of importing countries have been rejected or dumped in ports and have

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  • caused tremendous losses for China. The Chinese government has becomeaware of the new challenge and has taken action. The government has listedfood safety as one of its top programmes in the 10th Five-Year National Plan(2001-2005).

    In 2001, the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) announced the Pollution-FreeFood (PFF) Action Plan. The main objective of this plan is to establish,within ten years, a sound food quality and safety standard system in China.Based on other international well-recognised food safety standards, China willadopt and enact its own standards whilst aiming at harmonising with the Co-dex Alimentarius. At every level, the government strongly supports the settingup of advanced monitoring and testing laboratories. These authorized centresare responsible for the testing of pollution-free products. Apart from pollu-tion-free certification, enterprises are encouraged to comply with internation-ally recommended quality assurance schemes such as GMP, HACCP, ISO9000, ISO 1400, etc. Furthermore, the Chinese government is in the process ofenacting the Agrifood Quality and Safety Law. Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin,and Shenzhen were chosen as pilot cities for the implementation of the Pollu-tion-Free Food Action Plan in 2001. The emphasis of the first phase(2001-2005) will be on agro-chemicals and residues of vegetables, fruits andteas. By 2005, the product category will be expanded to include grain, meats,eggs, milk and fish. The main reason for the Chinese government to start itsprogramme with chemical residue on horticultural products is the increasingtrade dispute with Japan. During the past years, Japanese markets have put tre-mendous pressure on China in reducing the agro-chemical residue level in itsvegetables. Certainly, the Chinese government should also acknowledge thedamage caused by hazards other than chemical residues, such as plantdiseases.

    Before the introduction of PFF in China, there were two other certificationschemes involving green foods and organic foods. If the Pollution-Free FoodProgramme is to ensure safe, basic food for the people of China, the target forgreen food and organic food must be a higher quality. Green food is instigatedby the MoA and is classified at A-level and AA-level. AA-level products areof higher standard than A-level products and correspond with organic prod-ucts. Of the 2000 certified green food products in China, only 10% is qualifiedat AA-level. The State Bureau for Environmental Protection is in charge of or-ganic product certification and co-operates with other international organicorganisations. Organic products are mainly for the export markets.

    Another hot dispute concerning food safety is the character of geneticallymodified (GM) products. China is developing the largest plant biotechnologycapacity outside of North America. Bt1 cotton accounts for 30% of Chinascotton area, and other GM crops, such as rice, maize, wheat, soybeans and pea-

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  • nuts are either in a research trial stage or ready for commercialisation (Huanget al., 2002 a, b). In January 2002, the MoA announced two GM food regula-tions for GM food import and labelling, in addition to previously publishedregulations for general GM food management. These regulations require allGM product importers to apply for safety verification from the MoA and allGM products, or products processed from GM materials, will have to be la-belled implicitly. The new regulations took effect on March 20, 2002. Untilnow, around two dozen trade companies have been granted GM product im-port and labelling permission.

    TIANJIN CONSUMER CASE STUDY

    The case study was carried out within the framework of the research projecttitled Strengthening Research and Extension on Sustainable Vegetable Pro-duction and Marketing in Tianjin financed by Dutch government Senteragency. Tianjin with a population of 10 million is the fourth largest city ofChina, located about 120 km southeast of Beijing. It is one of the four cities(with Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing) that have political status of a prov-ince in China. When carrying out this project in Tianjin, we strongly sensedthe consumers concerns about food safety, particularly with vegetables. Wedesigned this case study in order to gain insight into the consumers knowl-edge and awareness of food safety in order to be able to make recommenda-tions to both private sectors and governmental policies.

    Survey Design and Data

    Survey data were obtained by using structured questionnaires. The projectteam has contracted the Department of Agricultural Economics, Tianjin Agri-cultural College. The department staff was very committed and selected 30 topstudents to carry out the survey. After an experienced marketing researcherprovided a training course, these students were formed into pairs and given 20questionnaires. The interviews were conducted in the first week of October2001 when the school had a week-long national holiday. The students were in-structed to evenly select the 20 interviewees from different locations like su-permarkets, open markets, residential areas, streets, etc. There was noadditional restriction for the interview time since all retail outlets in Chinaopen more than 10 hours per day and seven days a week. Only 10 out of 308people approached refused to be interviewed.

    The first part of the questionnaire covers demographic variables. The re-maining part of the questionnaire is related to consumer awareness of food

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  • safety. Selected consumer foods include pork, beef, chicken, fish, fresh milkand vegetables. Questions were asked about consumers general concernsabout the safety of selected products. The consumers awareness, purchase ex-periences and willingness to pay for pollution-free vegetables, green food, or-ganic food and GMO food were also measured. Ten items of the EBBTsub-scale were used to measure the consumers variety-seeking tendenciesand were measured against the five-point Likert scale (Baugartner andSteenkamp, 1996). More information about the EBBT application can befound in Zhang (2002).

    General Concerns About Food Safety

    From the six selected products, a four-point rating scale is used to assessconcerns ranging from not at all concerned to very much concerned. Theresults show that Tianjins consumers are most concerned about vegetablesand milk. Seventy percent and seventy-three percent of the consumers indicatethat they are very much concerned about milk and vegetable products respec-tively. Consumers are relatively confident about the quality of chicken andfish as only 40% claim to be very much concerned. Beef and pork have a mid-dle score of 54% and 64% respectively with regard to serious concerns.

    We have asked consumers how important certain issues (such as gainingweight, falling ill, hormones, pesticides, harmful bacteria and nutrition lev-els) are when purchasing different products. Again, the four-point ratingscale is applied here from not at all concerned to very much concerned.The results indicate that consumers have different concerns about differentfoods. Consumers major concerns about pork are falling ill and harmfulbacteria, whilst being least concerned about gaining weight. With regard tofish, consumers care more about nutrition than anything else whilst beingleast concerned about gaining weight. Their main concerns about vegetablesare pesticides.

    Awareness and Experiences of Pollution-Free, Green, Organicand GM Foods

    Different quality products with various labels are available in the markets.Four types of products (pollution-free vegetables, green food, organic foodand GM food) have been listed and the consumer is asked about productawareness, purchase experiences and willingness to buy.

    The results in Figure 1 show that from the four selected categories, Tianjinconsumers are most familiar with green food, followed by pollution-free vege-tables. Less than half the consumers have heard of organic and GM food. In

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  • terms of purchase experience, green food has the highest purchase rate fol-lowed by pollution-free vegetables. Around 10% and 16% of the consumersclaim that they have tried GM food and organic food respectively. This resultcontradicts reality as the survey was carried out in 2001 when labeled GMfoods were not sold in Chinese markets. A follow-up interview showed that

    62 JOURNAL OF INTERNATIONAL FOOD & AGRIBUSINESS MARKETING

    10080604020

    0

    83.3 98.3

    48 35

    pollutionfree

    vegetable

    green food organic foodextra

    GM food

    The percent of consumer awareness on eachproduct

    FIGURE 1. Tianjin Consumers Awareness, Experience and Willingness to Buy

    pollutionfree

    vegetable

    green food organic foodextra

    GM food

    The percent of consumer purchasing on eachproduct

    10080604020

    0

    57.5

    83

    16 9.7

    pollutionfree

    vegetable

    green food organic foodextra

    GM food

    The percent of consumer willingness to buy on eachproduct

    10080604020

    0

    71.789

    36.3 23.3

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  • consumers believed some functional food products, such as fortified calciumin milk, to be GM food. Consumers are intending to expand their food con-sumption to all four categories. In particular, future consumption of organicand GM foods will be doubled if consumers follow their intentions.

    Willingness to Pay (WTP) Extra

    We have not carried out a WTP study on an experimental base but focusedonly on consumers intention. Consumers are asked how much extra they arewilling to pay for each product category (see Table 1). The results show that163 out of 300 consumers do not want to pay more than 20% extra for Greenfood over normal food whilst GM food accounted for the lowest WTP (only 98respondents). A negligible percentage is willing to pay more than half thannormal food.

    What Kind of Consumer Would Purchase PFV?

    It is interesting to find out what kind of consumer is more likely to purchasePFV as the Chinese government is heavily promoting its pollution free foodprogramme. As the consumer behaviour purchased or not is a dichotomousdependent variable, this situation cannot be studied under the assumption ofordinary regression due to the absence of normal distribution. Furthermore,several demographic variables have more than two categories. Therefore lo-gistic regression was adopted to estimate model coefficients by using the max-imum-likelihood method.

    Xiaoyong Zhang 63

    TABLE 1. Number of Consumers Willingness to Pay for Different Types ofFood (% in Parentheses)

    Pay extra Pollution-freevegetables

    Green food Organic food GM food

    Less than 20% 156 (52) 163 (54) 89 (30) 71 (24)

    20%-40% 42 (14) 64 (21) 15 (5) 13 (4)

    40%-60% 19 (6) 25 (8) 12 (4) 13 (4)

    60%-80% 1 (0) 2 (1) 1 (0) 1 (0)

    More than 80% 6 (2) 8 (2) 0 (0) 0 (0)

    Zero 76 (26) 38 (14) 173 (61) 202 (68)

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  • The dependent variable is the consumers purchasing experience of PFV. Ifthey have purchased PFV before, this has been coded as 0 in the model. Ifthey have not, 1 is coded as the internal value. Four categorically explana-tory variables, the interviewees age and gender, household income, and high-est education within the household, are coded in the Table 2 as follows. Otherexplanatory variables include the total EBBT score and the degree of con-sumers general concerns about vegetables VEGE (measured at four levels).

    Forward Stepwise (Likelihood Ratio) was used as automated model build-ing. The estimation terminated after four variables entered the model. BothOmnibus tests of the models coefficients and the Hosmer and Lemeshow testare significant and indicate that the model fits the data quite well. We under-stand that stepwise estimation procedure may be subject to hazard solutions.The outcomes could be better tested on a hold-out sample. However, since oursample is not large enough, it is not feasible to carry out the test.

    The estimated coefficients Bs are measures of the changes in odds ratio (seeTable 3). A positive coefficient increases the probability of an event occur-ring, whilst a negative value decreases the predicted probability. Since the in-ternal code for purchased is 0 in this model, Bs should be explained asfollows: a negative coefficient sign increases the probability of consumers

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    TABLE 2. Definition of Categorical Variables

    Variablesdescription

    Categories Variable names Frequency

    age AGE(3) 60

    income INCM(3) 33

    education elementary and secondary (reference category) 31

    high school EDUMERGE(1) 103

    college and higher level EDUMERGE(2) 164

    gender female (Reference category) 133

    male GENDER(1) 165

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  • purchases and a positive sign decreases it. The final result of the Forward Se-lection method indicates four significant variables: VEGE, Gender, Age andEducation. The results can be explained that the more consumers are con-cerned about the safety of vegetables, the higher the probability that they willpurchase PFV. Men are more likely to buy PFV than women. The variableage as a whole is significant. When we look at the different categories, it be-comes obvious that the two younger age groups are significant groups whereasthe older group (50 years and older) is not. As far as the education category isconcerned, the highest education category (college and higher) is significant.It is somewhat surprising to see that men are more likely to buy PFV thanwomen, given the fact that women usually look after their families. This mightbe explained if Chinese men are now more involved in household issues and ifthey are as (or more) concerned about food safety as women. The insignificantvariables are the EBBT scores and incomes. It is reasonable to believe that va-riety-seeking consumers are not in the same category as food-safety consum-ers. Nevertheless, the insignificance of income contradicts the generalexpectation that higher income consumers would pay more attention to foodsafety. This may be explained by the fact that the reported income data are nota real reflection of the interviewees living standards (Table 3).

    Xiaoyong Zhang 65

    TABLE 3. Variables Entered in the Equation

    Variables B S.E. Wald df Sig. Exp(B)

    AGE 13.768 3 .003

    AGE(1) 1.150 .363 10.011 1 .002 .317

    AGE(2) .974 .333 8.545 1 .003 .377

    AGE(3) .391 .352 1.237 1 .266 .676

    GENDER(1) .777 .256 9.252 1 .002 .460

    EDUMERGE 5.984 2 .050

    EDUMERGE(1) .387 .454 .728 1 .393 .679

    EDUMERGE(2) .877 .429 4.179 1 .041 .416

    VEGE .532 .196 7.363 1 .007 .587

    Constant 3.198 .852 14.084 1 .000 24.488

    Model Summary: 2LL = 370.65Omnibus tests: Chi-square = 35.33, df = 7, sig. = .000Hosmer and Lemeshow test: Chi-square = 14.202, df = 8, sig. = .077

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  • Who Will Buy GM Food?

    As mentioned in the beginning of this paper, China ratified the regulationson GM food in the beginning of 2002, requiring food markets to label all theirGM foodstuffs. Little has been studied about consumers attitudes toward GMfoods in China and we are interested to find out what kind of future consumerswill be most likely to buy GM food.

    We applied logistic regression here for the same reason as before becauseof the dichotomous dependent variable and multiple categorical explanatoryvariables. If they are willing to purchase GM food, the internal code was 0 inthe model. If not, 1 was coded as the internal value. The same categoricallyexplanatory variables as in the previous section were included. Additional ex-planatory variables include the total EBBT score and the consumers attitudetowards GM food. The attitude is measured by the statement I think GM foodis harmful to human beings and consumers were asked to give their opinionaccording to the five-point Likert scale ranging from total disagreement to to-tal agreement. Forward Stepwise (Likelihood Ratio) is again used as auto-mated model building. The estimation terminated after two variables enteredthe model. Omnibus tests of the model coefficients are significant. However,Hosmer and Lemeshow test is not significant. This may be caused by the smallsample size that makes this test unsuitable.

    The Forward Stepwise (Likelihood Ratio) method results in two significantvariables: EBBT score and Education (Table 4). The higher the consumersEBBT score, the more likely they will be to buy GM food in future. The signif-icance of the highest education category indicates that the higher consumersare educated, the more likely they will be to buy GM food in future. This couldbe explained by the fact that higher educated consumers are better informed

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    TABLE 4. Variables Entered in the Equation

    B S.E. Wald df Sig. Exp(B)

    EDUMERGE 6.715 2 .035

    EDUMERGE(1) 1.186 .782 2.298 1 .130 .305

    EDUMERGE(2) 1.689 .759 4.950 1 .026 .185

    EBBT .107 .033 10.350 1 .001 1.113

    Constant .684 1.245 .302 1 .583 .505

    Model summary: 2LL = 300.351Omnibus tests: chi-square = 21.637, df = 3, sig. = .000Hosmer and Lemeshow test: chi-square = 11.941, df = 8, sig. = .154

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  • about GM food and less negative in their reactions to GM food. This couldalso be explained in another way: higher educated consumers are more qualityconscious. Their perception that GM food is of high quality is the main drivingforce for their willingness-to-buy. Both of the explanations warrant further in-vestigation.

    POLICY DISCUSSION AND MANAGERIAL IMPLICATION

    Food safety has been widely studied in developed countries but not in de-veloping countries. It could be argued that the reason for this is that the mainconcern in developing countries is food security, not food safety. However,our research indicates that a majority of surveyed consumers is very muchconcerned about the safety of their food, particularly of vegetables and dairyproducts, albeit at low WTP. Of course, owing to its limited scope, we cannotclaim that our sample is representative of the whole Chinese population.

    During the past decades, developed countries have allocated significant re-sources to rebuilding consumers trust in food by adopting stricter laws andsetting up independent food safety authorities. This development has pro-duced spillover effects outside the developed countries as the internationaltrade intensified. Chinas announcement of the Pollution-Free Food ActionPlan is an illustration of this strategic approach. Our results indicate that thisinitiative will be welcomed by young, male and higher educated consumers,but the government should consider a promotion policy for this Plan that paysspecial attention to older and female consumers. The use of easy languagewhen explaining the benefits of this Action Plan would be desirable, espe-cially for lower educated consumers.

    Among the four quality schemes available in China, Green food has beenthe best received. The reason could be that green food is the oldest quality la-bel in China and these products are readily available in the markets. There is awide debate going on about the ethics of GM food. Nevertheless, our resultsindicate that quite a number of Chinese consumers are prepared to buy GMfood in the future. These consumers have been characterized as higher edu-cated and variety-seeking consumers. More information is one of the efficientways to educate consumers about GM food since some consumers confuseGM food with other high-tech foods, such as functional food. Variety-seekingconsumers may think of GM food as a new, innovative, novel product andwould like to become pilot consumers.

    Chinese consumers serious concerns about food quality and safety alsoprovide potential business opportunities for quality certification schemes.Several international organic organizations, such as SKAL, OCIA and BCS,

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  • are presented in China for organic food inspection and certification. However,the focus of organic products is export markets. Substantial demand is ex-pected for other quality control schemes, such as HACCP, GMP and FQS2000, as massive Chinese enterprises are struggling to get their products certi-fied for Chinese consumers. Poor Chinese consumers could be further con-fused given all these new programs and schemes. Public information andknowledge are needed to inform consumers about all these changes.

    FURTHER RESEARCH AGENDA

    Future research in China related to food safety issues should focus on sev-eral aspects. First, more elaborate research should be conducted to study theimpact of perceived risks and benefits on consumers attitudes towards PFFand GM food. It will also be worthwhile to gain insight into the trust consum-ers put in sources of information, such as scientists, the government, the me-dia, etc. Next, there seems to be a need for research on benefits and costs forthe private sector when adopting food safety and quality assurances (e.g., PFF,GM labeling) as they proceed with their compliance processes, since consum-ers may not be willing to pay the necessary premium. It is likely that the eco-nomic implications for companies will vary, particularly for small enterprises.

    NOTE

    1. Bt refers to a bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, from which scientists can isolatea gene to modify the cotton with trait of insect resistance.

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    Submitted: March 2003First Revision: September 2003

    Second Revision: November 2003Accepted: February 2004

    Xiaoyong Zhang 69

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