Five biases that make food unsafe

Two researchers from the University of Missouri outline how our cognitive biases can impact the production and distribution of food, contributing to the risk of foodborne illness outbreaks.

Foodborne illness outbreaks continue to be a pervasive problem within the food system. In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in six people experience foodborne illness each year, including more than 100,000 hospitalisations and 3,000 deaths.1 Globally, one in 10 become sick due to contaminated foods, 40 percent of whom are children under the age of five.2

A growing number of scholars recognise cognitive biases as a contributor to the problem of foodborne illness outbreaks. Cognitive biases are systematic errors in thinking that induce people to behave in irrational, suboptimal and unethical ways, sometimes without them being consciously aware of it. In contrast to instances where food products are intentionally contaminated – such as the case in 1982 of Tylenol capsules in Illinois being laced with potassium cyanide – when people are unaware of how cognitive biases affect their ethical behaviour, they may unintentionally create conditions and outcomes that result in foodborne illness outbreaks.

There are many types and variations of cognitive bias. However, the following five biases are particularly relevant to behaviours affecting the production, processing and distribution of food and food products.