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Charlebois: Coronavirus, Corona beer and risk-averse consumers

A recent survey suggested that 38 per cent of Americans are not drinking Corona beer due to the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, formerly known as the coronavirus. There is obviously no link between the beer and the virus itself, but the survey suggests that a mental association between the product and the disease may be too much to bear for some Americans. America’s relationship with risk is as interesting as it is unpredictable, especially from a Canadian perspective.

Even if results from the survey were disputed by the parent company, Constellation Brands and by many 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 us. Risk perception is rarely rational. Some reports suggest that restaurants in Chinatowns across America, from Los Angeles to New York, have seen a drop of 20 per cent in traffic compared to last year. In Canada, some think the same phenomenon is happening, but no figures have been shared of late.

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 and killed four. In 2007, agribusiness giant ConAgra failed to maintain one of its peanut butter plants in Georgia. Several salmonella-tainted jars of Peter Pan peanut butter were sold; over 600 people fell ill. In 2009, executives at the Peanut Corporation of America were aware that their peanut butter was tainted with salmonella but shipped products out anyway. And most recently, in 2015, too little surveillance over its supply chain led to a norovirus outbreak at Chipotle, a large U.S. restaurant chain. 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 the food industry.

Time and time again, America’s obsession with risks and how it deals with them has fascinated us.
In all these cases, companies suffered financially, and rightly so. But the Corona beer and virus case is an interesting one. The World Health Organization, using regular protocols, ended up calling the disease coronavirus at first, only to change it on Feb. 11 to Covid-19. Media covering the story are mostly still referring to the disease by its original name, coronavirus. That the naming process of an international agency may have affected sales of a beverage carrying a similar name is telling of our risk-averse society. With more product options comes an acceptance to allow 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 itself is becoming more apparent, as any Canadian food exporter to the U.S. will tell you. Technological progress in food is generally supposed to make human life easier and safer. However, these incidents are showing us that this progress seldom occurs without the unfortunate emergence of manufactured policy, economic, environmental, and social risks. Despite its rigour, the WHO’s decisions may have had unintended consequences for Constellation Brands, makers of Corona beer. This could easily happen again, and one suspects the WHO is taking notes.

Canada is not immune to any of this, but the situation is not as critical. We 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 – any risks – the burden is placed upon the shoulders of individual consumers to make their own decisions, based on the evidence they have at hand.

Which is where things are getting 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 will need to be very careful and should think of ways to get more proactively involved in our public discourse about how we deal with food-related risks.