Coordinated actions are needed between the government, farmers, distributors, consumers and actors in the food supply chain to ensure that the supply of food is healthy for people and the planet. This study looks at how the consumer can stand as an agent of change in the food system, which requires an understanding of what drives consumer’s food choices. This can be a stepping stone towards influencing the food system to produce food that has positive outcomes for human and planet health.
Contrary to popular beliefs that food prices drive poor consumers’ food choices, our study finds that food safety is the most important factor influencing consumer food choices in Tanzania. This could partly be because of the historical incidences of waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid. For example, in 2016, Tanzania reported 14 547 cholera cases that resulted in 225 deaths, where nearly 1 out of 10 cases were children under the age of five. In this regard, when talking about food and food safety in Tanzania, food hygiene is at the top of the list. Food hygiene has also been emphasized more compared to other food safety issues when looking at the enforcement of food standards in Tanzania’s rural and urban food markets. For example, among food vendors, the focus is on the cleanliness of the place and the people serving, but there is little concern about where or how food is sourced.
In our study, we asked 765 male and female consumers; from low and high-income households; in rural and urban towns; to choose their most and least important food attributes from a group of sixteen food attributes. Consumers choose among six of the sixteen attributes such as traceability; trusting producers; food safety (free of contamination from aflatoxins, pesticides residuals or antibiotics in food); hygiene; origin; naturalness; reduced carbohydrates, fats and sugars; nutrition labels; micronutrients; perishability; produced in a way that a free from environmental pollution; freshness; convenience; sensory; size; and price. Among the sixteen food attributes, food hygiene came out as the most important attribute when buying food in general, when buying processed food like bread and when buying fresh leafy vegetables like amaranths. Although food price did not form part of the top three attributes that people selected when buying food in general, it does stand out when buying specific foods like fresh leafy vegetables and bread.
Interestingly, it would seem that safety in terms of contamination from contaminants like aflatoxins and pesticide residuals that can cause long-term illnesses like cancer does not matter when consumers think of specific food items like green leafy vegetables and bread; it only ranks as the third most important attribute when consumers are looking at a typical food basket. This could partly be explained by consumers’ perception of food safety among different food items or their knowledge of food safety in general. For example, in a qualitative interview, one consumer seemed to believe that most leafy vegetables like “matembele”, which are the leaves of a native vegetable, sweet potato, are safe, natural and/or organic.
Furthermore, when discussing food safety with consumers, most consumers seem to focus more on food hygiene and food spoilage, which have short-term side effects, and less on contaminations that can result in long-term side effects. For example, an urbanite middle-income consumer buying fried fish from a street outlet said that she buys from the food joint near her home because she sees the vendor cleaning and preparing fresh fish every day. When asked about the use and reuse of cooking oil, she did not give it much thought, arguing that as long as the oil was not too dirty to stain the food, it was fine.
Preference for food hygiene and price still stands out across low-income, high-income, rural, and urban consumers. However, the importance is only attributed when consumers express their preference for specific foods like bread and fresh leafy vegetables, but not when indicating their preference for an average food basket. When evaluating an average food basket, freshness and contamination that can cause long-term illnesses like cancer become more important for urban, rural, low-income, and high-income consumers respectively.
On the other hand, quantity or size which is always believed to be important among poor consumers is scored low across all types of foods, income groups, and towns. Nutritional attributes, both related to micronutrients in food, nutrition labels, and reduced sugars and carbohydrates, though not negatively rated are not rated high. Hence, to be able to create change in the food system, it is important to design programs that can influence change in consumer attitude, an attitude that is not only cautious about immediate side effects but long-term side effects to both human and planet health.