A survey this week suggested that 38 percent of Americans aren’t drinking Corona beer due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, formerly known as the coronavirus. There’s obviously no link between the beer and the virus, but the survey suggests a mental association between the product and the disease may be too much to bear for some Americans.
Constellation Brands, the maker of the iconic beer brand, was quick to say beer sales were not affected so far by the outbreak, but without providing any numbers.
America’s relationship with risk is as interesting as it is unpredictable, especially from a Canadian perspective.
Even if results of the survey were disputed by the company and analysts, what rings true is America’s fear of fear itself. Time and time again, America’s obsession with risks and how it deals with them has fascinated Canadians and others.
Risk perception is rarely rational, especially in the United States. Some reports suggest that restaurants in Chinatowns across America have seen a traffic drop of 20 percent, based on January and February sales. In Canada, some have suggested the same phenomenon is happening, but no figures have been shared.
It’s always difficult to know whether these reports have any validity but such behavior wouldn’t be surprising in the U.S. With so much abundance of choice in the market, how Americans perceive risk will allow them to consider other options.
America has had its share of food safety disasters.
In 1993, burgers served at 73 locations of the fast-food chain Jack in the Box were linked to an E. coli epidemic that infected 732 people, most of them under 10 years old. This outbreak killed four children.
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In 2007, agri-business giant Conagra failed to maintain one of its peanut butter plants in Sylvester, Ga. Several salmonella-tainted jars of Peter Pan peanut butter were sold, which caused over 600 people to fall ill. The company was fined more than $11 million.
In 2009, executives at the Peanut Corp. of America were aware that their peanut butter was tainted with salmonella but shipped products out anyway. Some executives were fined and jailed.
And most recently, in 2015, too little surveillance over its supply chain led to a norovirus outbreak at Chipotle Mexican Grill, a large restaurant chain based in the U.S. More than 300 people fell ill and shares were hammered by investors. The chain eventually recovered, although its reputation was damaged.
All these events have arguably contributed to America’s collective unease with industry and foodstuffs.
In all these cases, companies suffered financially and rightly so.
But the Corona beer/virus case is different. The World Health Organization (WHO) chose the name of the virus, simply by following regular disease-naming protocols. It called it coronavirus at the beginning but changed it on Feb. 11 to COVID-19.
Specific reasons for the change are unclear but media covering the story are mostly still referring to the disease by its original name, coronavirus.
To suggest the naming process of an international agency may have affected sales of a beer carrying a similar name tells us something about our risk-averse society. More product options allows perceived risk to influence our behaviour and choice. It’s as simple as that.
A collective obsession to avoid risks will make consumers want to protect themselves first and foremost.
America’s growing fear of food is becoming more apparent in today’s health-obsessed and risk-averse society, as any Canadian food exporter to the United States will tell you.
Technological progress in food is generally supposed to make human life easier and safer. However, these incidences show us that this progress seldom occurs without the unfortunate emergence of manufactured policy, economic, environmental and social risks.
Despite its rigour and scientific commitment, WHO’s decisions may have had unintended consequences and Constellation Brands had to openly address how its sales were affected.
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This could easily happen again and one suspects WHO is taking notes.
Canada is certainly not immune to any of this but the situation is not as critical.
Canadians perceive risks differently. Most Canadians believe Canadian food to be safe, even when a major recall occurs. We saw this with mad cow in 2003, listeria and Maple Leaf foods in 2008, and XL Foods and beef in 2012.
But as regulatory authorities attempt to contain risks, the burden is placed on the shoulders of consumers to make their own decisions, based on evidence at hand.
And this is where things get complicated. It’s difficult to know who and what to believe in a world of misinformation, cancel culture tactics, fake news and propaganda.
Public agencies need to be very careful and get more proactively involved in the public discourse about how we deal with food-related risks.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.