Unconscious bias can worsen foodborne illness outbreaks, say researchers

Posted: 11 March 2021 | | No comments yet

Researchers from the University of Missouri believe that actions that worsen foodborne disease outbreaks are not always conscious, citing a 2011 US Listeria outbreak as an example.


Cantaloupes from a farm in Colorado were linked to a US Listeria outbreak in 2011

In the midst of a pandemic that has claimed more than two million lives worldwide and disrupted nearly every facet of society since it appeared more than a year ago, understanding the factors that create and facilitate disease outbreaks is more important than ever.

Now, in a study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, researchers at the University of Missouri claim that cognitive biases – patterns of errors in thinking that affect judgments and behaviours, often unconsciously – can help create and worsen foodborne disease outbreaks.

“Unethical behaviour isn’t always intentional; conflicts of interest and other unconscious motivations can lead people to behave in ways that help outbreaks emerge and spread,” said Harvey James, Associate Director of the division of applied social sciences and a Professor of agricultural and applied economics in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR).

“If we can understand what motivates a store owner to re-open too early or a food producer to cut corners, then we can create better policies and regulations that nudge people in the right direction without restricting their freedoms.”

James and Michelle Segovia, an Assistant Professor of agricultural and applied economics at CAFNR, were eager to apply the science of behavioural ethics to the field of food safety. Behavioural ethics examines why people make ethical and unethical decisions. To see how those choices might contribute to a foodborne disease outbreak, the researchers turned to the case of Jensen Farms.

In 2011, the Colorado cantaloupe producer was found to be the source of a Listeria outbreak that resulted in 33 deaths across 28 states. The researchers claim the outbreak occurred despite Jensen Farms having recently audited their food safety procedures and installed new cleaning equipment.

To explain this contradiction, the researchers identified several forms of cognitive bias at work. Motivated blindness, for instance, encourages a person or company to advance their own interests without accounting for conflicts of interest. In the case of Jensen Farms, James and Segovia theorised that motivated blindness was to blame for the choice to hire a lenient auditor that deemed the company’s food safety procedures ‘superior’.

In addition, the researchers emphasised the unconscious nature of cognitive biases with an example of omission bias, in which the lack of action, rather than a specific harmful action, can create unfortunate consequences. Although Jensen Farms possessed equipment capable of cleaning cantaloupes with an antibacterial wash, the office of the US Attorney for Colorado said that the antibacterial function was not used prior to the outbreak.

“Jensen Farms believed they were making their cantaloupes safer even as they failed to take actions that could have prevented an outbreak,” James suggested. “This is a perfect example of the fact that unethical behaviour does not need to be a conscious act.

“There isn’t always an easy ‘villain’, so if laws and policies only address people who are intentionally propagating an outbreak, we are missing a big part of the picture. This study is a step toward recognising the immense consequences of inadvertent and unintentional behaviour.”

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