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Harvard study analyzes Americans’ willingness to pay more for food safety

By Caroline Scott-Thomas , 13-Oct-2011

Americans are willing to pay more for safer food – but the amount they are willing to pay is highly dependent on the duration and severity of the illness prevented, as well as cost, according to new research.

Writing in the September issue of the journal Risk Analysis , the researchers’ conclusions were based on a survey of 2,858 adults selected randomly from the US population, supported by a grant from the US Department of Agriculture.

The Harvard University health economists suggested that according to economic theory, willingness to pay (WTP) as a way to reduce the risk of foodborne illness should be proportional to the corresponding gain in quality adjusted life years (QALYs). However, they found that this was not necessarily the case.

They asked consumers about their willingness to pay more for chicken, ground beef and deli meats if they had a verified reduced risk of foodborne illness –with varied duration and severity of potential illness, from one day to seven days, and with symptoms ranging from mild stomach aches to hospitalization.

“[Willingness to pay] is estimated to be more sensitive to severity of the illness than to duration,” the authors wrote.

They concluded that depending on the duration and severity of the illness, collectively respondents were willing to pay between $4,500 and $6,500 for each case of illness they would avoid. However, although they were willing to pay a premium to avoid a mild illness, they would not be willing to pay a proportionately higher amount to avoid a more severe illness.

The researchers said that their conclusions suggest that WTP and QALYs, although both used in risk analyses, are not equal measurements.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six, or 48m Americans get sick as a result of foodborne illness each year, about 375,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die.

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