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April 27, 2021
by Patricia Tomasi

Does Bias Play A Role In Foodborne Illness Outbreaks?

April 27, 2021 08:00 by Patricia Tomasi  [About the Author]

A new study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics looked at behavioral ethics and the incidence of foodborne illness outbreaks.

“The study is about understanding why foodborne illness outbreaks are a persistent problem, especially given the technologies we have for processing and preserving foods,” study author Harvey S. James Jr. told us. “We were interested in knowing what was missing in our understanding of the problem so that we can develop solutions for mitigating or avoiding the problems in the future.”

James Jr. and the research team hypothesized that cognitive biases play a role in how farmers, food processors and food handlers behave, which therefore would explain why foodborne illnesses are a persistent problem. Cognitive biases are preconceptions and mental shortcuts that people make that interfere with the way people see reality and make decisions. Often these are automatic and hard to recognize in ourselves. Since few cases of foodborne illness outbreaks are caused by intentional contamination of food, the researchers surmised that most cases are the result of unintentional problems in how people handle food and interact with the food processing context. Unintentional problems can arise when cognitive biases interfere with decision-making processes.

“Foodborne illnesses are a persistent problem,” James Jr. told us. “We are trying to understand why that is the case.”

One in ten people experience a foodborne illness each year and over 400,000 people die from a foodborne illness annually across the globe. Forty per cent of these people are children under the age of five according to the World Health Organization. Approximately one in six people in the United States experience a foodborne illness annually according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The research team looked at a famous case of foodborne illness outbreaks. They examined statements made by those persons at the center of the controversy to see if there was evidence suggesting one or more cognitive biases were evident. They weren’t looking at intentional biases such as the one in the case in 1982 where Tylenol capsules were laced with potassium cyanide resulting in the deaths of seven Americans. What the researchers in this study were looking at were unintentional actions related to foodborne illnesses and their relation to cognitive bias.

“As expected, we could align statements by persons at the center of the 2011 outbreak of Listeria in cantaloupes to various cognitive biases,” James Jr. told us. “We were surprised at how easily it was to connect statements people make to cognitive biases.”

There’s also a huge economic cost to foodborne illnesses. According to the World Bank, approximately $95 billion is the cost to treat foodborne illness in low and middle income countries. Foodborne illnesses are also becoming a big problem in many countries. The U.S. introduced new regulations such as the Food Safety Modernization Act to try and help improve food handling operations. Despite these efforts, the rate of foodborne illnesses per year has not changed. What’s the problem? James Jr. believes we need to be attentive to how cognitive biases affect individuals producing and processing food.

“We also need to consider ways for responding to or mitigating problems arising from the unintentional unethical behavior and harm that arises from the way cognitive biases interfere with our decision-making,” James Jr. told us. “This is hard to do and requires that we understand the context of decision-making carefully.”

About the Author

Patricia Tomasi

Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog:

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