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Consumer acceptance of cosmetically imperfect produce.

Consumer Acceptance of Cosmetically Imperfect Produce

While proponents claim that use of chemical pesticides in modern agriculture has provided savings in agricultural resources and increased the quality and quality of food, there is evidence of environmental pollution by chemical residues, of ecological disturbance, and of uncertainty about the residues' long-term effects on human health and well-being (Headley 1967; Spindler, 1983). Rachel Carson's popular Silent Spring (1962) heightened public awareness about the health effects of pesticide residues on humans and wildlife. A replication by Sachs, Blair, and Richter (1987) of the Bealer and Willits 1965 study (Bealer and Willis 1968) showed that concern about pesticide use increased significantly in regard to farm practices, wildlife preservation, and personal health.

Recent surveys have found continued public concern about the possibilities of chemical residues in foods. Of the 1,008 participants in a 1984 survey, 77 percent believed that chemical residues from pesticides and herbicides are serious hazards, and 18 percent described them as somewhat of a hazard (Burbee and Kramer 1986). Although three-quarters of the respondents of the January 1989 Food Marketing Institute survey stated that they were completely or mostly confident about the safety of the food in supermarkets, when asked about a specific list of food safety issues, a large proportion said several posed a serious hazard. Eighty-two percent said that residues, such as pesticides and herbicides, were a serious hazard, with an additional 13 percent citing them as something of a hazard (Food Marketing Institute 1989). Because consumption of fresh produce is identified with healthy eating practices in the USDA Dietary Guidelines (USDA-HHS 1980), the possibility of residues is of particular concern to the increasing number of health-conscious consumers (Jones and Weimer 1980). The annual survey conducted by the American produce industry found that only 43 percent of the respondents thought that the government was doing a good job in assuring product safety (Zind 1986-1987). Confidence in government food inspection procedures has also decreased (Picker 1987; Sachs, Blair, and Richter 1987). These concerns have prompted the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and some state regulatory bodies to increase the monitoring of foods and agrichemicals (Zind 1989). Consumers' concerns are exacerbated by disagreements among scientists and other specialists who deal with pesticides about substance and application safety and considerations of short- and long-range costs and benefits (Hawkes and Stiles 1986).

The importance of aesthetic standards has been debated by proponents and critics of current pesticide practices. A widespread belief in the produce industry is that consumers insist upon blemish-free fruits and vegetables. Consumer advocates and environmentalists maintain that consumers are willing to trade off some degree of physical perfection for lower use of pesticides (Feenstra 1988). The issue has important consequences in a variety of decisions throughout the marketing process, from the choice of varieties to plant, to the amounts of pesticides and growth stimulants used, and to harvest, culling, display, and advertising practices.

A lively controversy has raged for several decades over these issues in regard to fresh market tomatoes. The industry view was expressed by one tomato wholesaler who declared, "The important thing for us in a tomato is to get it to the consumer looking good. No blemishes, no black spots, no softness" (Whiteside 1977). At the same time, surveys conducted by USDA showed a high level of consumer dissatisfaction with the taste and ripeness of market tomatoes. Consumers were much less critical of appearance than these other attributes (Handy and Pfaft 1975; Handy 1976).

Contrary to the theories held by many economists, a 1983 Kansas survey found that a majority of consumers believed that food prices were higher as a result of pesticide use (Kramer and Penner 1986). Pesticide costs to the growers rise as pest resistance to earlier methods of treatment increases. As an example, the citrus thrips' pesticide resistance has become a major problem in the San Joaquin Valley (Morse and Brawner 1986; Immaraju, Morse, and Kersten 1989), requiring twice the number of treatment applications as previously. This provides an incentive for growers to investigate the use of biological controls or an integrated pest management (IPM) strategy. The widespread adoption of IPM techniques, however, may require consumers' acceptance of less cosmetically perfect fresh market produce, especially in the initial stages.

Although Headley (1967) proposed a tradeoff possibility between consumers' cosmetic standards and pesticide use, little research has been undertaken on this issue. The present study examines the tradeoffs in regard to oranges scarred by the citrus thrips. California produces almost 30 percent of the nation's oranges for the domestic and the export markets (Briggs 1986). The thrips is considered a cosmetic pest on the peel of young fruit (Morse and Rhodes 1988). This refers to superficial damage to the exterior appearance that does not significantly affect the taste, nutritive, or storage capacity of the produce, or the yield or health of the plant or orchard (Feenstra 1988). Fresh oranges that do not meet cosmetic standards are likely to be diverted into the juice market at much lower prices to the California grower. Growers, fearing rejection of the scarred oranges by packing houses, apply a carbamate at petal fall and then, if needed, an organophosphate, as well as a prebloom treatment, to control the thrips. Although the thrips also feed on foliage, this does not appear to reduce current or future yields on mature trees significantly (Elmer and Brawner 1988).

Because the major citrus packing house in California will not accept fruit with more than 10 percent cosmetic damage (Feenstra 1988), growers build a "safety net" for themselves in attempting to produce oranges with substantially less than 10 percent cosmetic damage by employing large amounts of pesticides. These sprays may destroy beneficial insects in the orchard, such as the predaceous wasp that helps control California red scale, another insect pest (Phillips, Machlitt, and Mead 1983). High cosmetic standards also contribute to the cullage of items that do not meet appearance standards for color, shape, or size. Produce buyers insist that consumers want "the biggest, the shiniest, and the most highly colored produce" (Feenstra, p. 6).

The present study estimates the extent to which consumers will trade off some degree of thrips scarring for reduced pesticide use. Another issue examined is consumers' stated willingness to forego out-of-season oranges treated with fungicides for other fruit with no fungicide. Oranges were selected as the focus of the investigation because of the research demonstrating the cosmetic damage of the thrips.


Interviews were conducted with 229 customers at twelve stores of nine chain supermarkets in northern and southern California. In each case two interviewers were present, one holding the stimulus materials (colored photographs) and the other asking questions and recording the answers. Sampling involved a count of shoppers exiting each market with selection of every third shopper. If this individual declined to be interviewed (approximately 30 percent declined, most often because of a lack of time), then the interviewer resumed counting and selected the next third shopper to exit the store. To determine consumer preference, a contingent valution procedure was used in which customers expressed a willingness to purchase. Hammitt (1986) has shown that this procedure yields results similar to observations of consumer market decisions.

Color photographs of three different oranges were the stimulus materials. Most research indicates relatively high levels of correspondence in response to color photographs and actual presentation of environmental stimuli (Brush 1979; Daniel and Borster 1976; Shafer and Richards 1974). Ratings of verbal descriptions and line drawings of clothing items produced similar factors in a semantic differential analysis (Holbrook and Moore 1981). Because no data could be found specifically comparing responses to color photographs and actual fruit samples, a small study on this issue was undertaken. A class of 37 undergraduate students was randomly divided into two halves. One group was asked to rate an orange along three 7-point semantic differential scales, representing the three major dimensions of value (value, activity, and strength) identified by Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum (1957). The remaining students were asked to rate a color photograph of the orange along the same scales. There were no significant differences between ratings of the photograph and the orange on any of the three scales.

A photograph of a cosmetically perfect orange was used as the standard. The other two photographs showed oranges of similar size, shape, and color. One photograph of the orange showed ten percent (Level 1) cosmetic damage from thrips' scars while the other showed 20 percent (Level 2) cosmetic damage on the peel surface. Consumers were first shown the standard orange followed by the photograph of the orange with Level 1 damage. They were asked to indicate their willingness along a 5-point scale (from much less willing to much more willing) to purchase the Level 1 orange compared with the standard orange. The comparison to the standard orange was repeated with the Level 2 orange. Once the respondents expressed their views, the following statement was read by the interviewer:

I am going to give you some additional information about these oranges. For this (standard) orange to look like this, it was necessary to spray it heavily with pesticides, up to the legal limit. The scarred oranges have also been sprayed, but with only half the amount of pesticides. Assuming the cost is the same for all oranges, how willing would you be to buy this (Level 1) compared to this one (standard)?

After being given this information, the respondent was asked again to indicate a level of willingness along the 5-point scale for the Level 1 orange, and then for the orange with Level 2 scarring. If the respondent asked any questions, such as "How dangerous are the pesticides?" or "Are the pesticides inside the fruit?", the interviewer responded, "I cannot give you additional information. Please make a choice based on what you already know."

Respondents were then asked the degree to which they would be willing to substitute other seasonal fruit grown without fungicides for out-of-season fungicide-treated oranges. This was followed by several demographic questions.


The sample consisted of 134 women (60 percent) and 89 men (40) percent). Twenty-seven percent were in their thirties, 15 percent in their forties, 13 percent in their fifties and sixties, and 11 percent over seventy. Two-thirds of the interviewees were the principal produce buyers for their households, with over 83 percent of the sample buying most produce at a supermarket or grocery store. Over fifty percent lived in 2- or 3-person households. Twenty-two percent lived alone, and 9 percent lived with 5 or more individuals. Of the 86 percent of the sample willing to state gross 1986 annual income, 29 percent reported incomes over $50,000, 17 percent reported $30-39,999, 17 percent $20-29,999, 14 percent $10-19,999, 11 percent reported $40-49,999, and 10 percent earned under $10,000. Seventy-one percent of the respondents were Caucasian, 14 percent were Afro-American, 7 percent were Hispanic, 5 percent were Asian-American, and 4 percent comprised the "other" category.

Table 1 shows that the respondents, when asked to accept the thrips-damaged oranges without explanation, were initially disinclined to purchase them. Seventy-eight percent of the customers said they would be less willing to buy the Level 1 orange (10 percent scarring by thrips). Rejection of Level 2 (20 percent scarring by thrips) damage without information was even more frequent--87 percent of the customers being less willing to purchase the orange.

Following the explanation that the Level 1 and Level 2 fruit had been sprayed with reduced amounts of pesticides, acceptance of the cosmetically imperfect oranges increased substantially. Table 1 shows that 63 percent of the customers were more willing after the explanation to purchase oranges with Level 1 damage ([chi.sup.2] = 176.9, d.f. =4, p [is less than] .001) and 58 percent to purchase oranges with Level 2 damage relative to the standard orange ([chi.sup.2] = 164.2, d.f. = 4, p [is ess than] .001).

Willingness to substitute other nontreated fruit for out-of-season oranges treated with fungicides was also high following the explanation. Sixty-four percent of the respondents would almost always be willing to make the substitution, and another 24 percent would sometimes be willing to make the substitution, while only 13 percent were unwilling.

To analyze possible relationships between demographic characteristics of the individuals surveyed and their pre- and post-information willingness to purchase thrips-scarred oranges, an ordered multinomial logit model of a full scale dummy variable structure was estimated. The dependent variable for the model consisted of two observations for each respondent, a pre-information willingness to purchase both Level 1 and Level 2 thrips-scarred oranges, and a post-information willingness to purchase these same oranges. The set of explanatory variables consisted of six demographic variables (Age, Education, Income, Gender, Ethnicity, and Number of Adults in the Household), a dummy variable [information (0 = pre-information observation, 1 = post-information observation)], and the six aforementioned demographic variables interacted with the information dummy variable. This type to model is equivalent to two separate models, one with only pre-information observations and the other with only post-information observations. The results of the estimation procedure are reported in Table.2.

The table is structured with a column for pre-information willingness coefficients and one for change in willingness summation across any given row of coefficients equals the post-information coefficients. The independent variables for the change in willingness are the product of the corresponding demographic variables with the information dummy variable, i.e., the interaction variables mentioned above. An ordered multinomial logit model estimates a separate intercept parameter for each value of the dependent variable except 0. These parameters are threshold levels for each categorical value of the dependent variable scale.

Overall, the full model estimated was significant ([chi.sup.2] = 175.82, d.f.=13, p [is less than] .001), however the overall fit as measured by the McFadden [R.sup.2] was only fair ([R.sup.2]=.147). To test whether the demographics of the individuals had any explanatory relationship to their willingness to purchase the cosmetically imperfect fruit, a reduced model eliminating all demographic variables, including the interaction effects, was estimated. (The only remaining independent variable is the information dummy). Based on a log likelihood ratio test (-2(In [L.sub.R] - In [L.sub.U])), no significant loss of fit was exhibited in this model ([[chi].sup.2] = 16.22, d.f. = 12), hence the null hypothesis that demographic variables had no explanatory power in our model was not rejected. This led to the inference that only information about reduced pesticide use was significant in explaining individuals' willingness to trade off cosmetic imperfection for reduced pesticide use. It indicates that people of all ages, income levels,

educational levels, genders, and ethnicities are equally likely to express willingness to make such a trade off.


Initial acceptance of the thrips-damaged oranges was low but rose substantially after information was provided about reduced pesticide use. With an explanation of reduced pesticide use, a majority of customers, regardless of initial level of acceptance, became more willing to purchase the cosmetically imperfect orange relative to the standard orange. Information appears as the sole determinant of this shift in willingness. These findings reveal a potential market across the range of consumers for cosmetically imperfect produce when customers are given information regarding reduced pesticide use. Information about fungicide use on oranges also prompted consumers to be willing to substitute other nontreated fruit for oranges out-of-season.

Lower cosmetic standards can benefit all segments of the produce industry and consumers. A number of growers are looking ahead to a time when the chemical supply will be whittled down due to decreased consumer tolerance for residues. Decreased usage of agri-chemicals is seen as both feasible and cost-effective (Zind 1989). Reduced spraying means less money spent by growers on chemicals, less exposure for farm workers, decreased likelihood of lowering populations of beneficial insects, and less chance of creating pesticide resistance among problem insects. At least in theory, these can translate into savings to consumers and lower likelihood of residues. While it is difficult to get agreement on safe tolerance levels for specific chemicals, or the extent of screening that needs to be done, there is a general consensus that lower pesticide inputs in the production process will reduce the possibility of residues, although the correlation is less than perfect.

The present results suggest that when reduced pesticide application is used in product differentiation, it can overcome the aesthetic preference for unblemished fruit. Some ecologically concerned consumers (Henion 1976) are willing to pay twice as much for organic produce compared with the same items without the organic label (USDA 1972). Schutz and Lorenz (1976) found that labeling items as organic increased consumer acceptance. A 1987 survey in The Packer, a trade publication for the fresh fruit and vegetable industry, found that of those respondents concerned about pesticide residues, 18 percent responded that they have altered their buying habits (Zind 1988). An additional 64 percent who were also concerned about residues have not altered their purchasing. However, it should be noted that limited availability of organic or laboratory-certified pesticide-free produce may have influenced the 64 percent who had not altered their purchasing (Bruhn, Lane, and Walton 1988). The Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Health, in interviews with 4,000 consumers, found that 62 percent made major changes in their diets to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. In a 1988 University of Florida survey, 58 percent of respondents said that they had altered their food consumption patterns to reduce perceived risks by eating less of some foods because of safety concerns (Zellner and Degner 1989). In addition, Sachs, Blair, and Richter (1987) found that consumers had significantly altered their own garden practices to use less chemicals. Research at farmers' markets has also shown consumers supporting regional and seasonal consumption to be more interested in freshness and flavor than in cosmetic perfection (Fjeld and Sommer 1982). This would necessitate a change in how oranges are currently marketed, as appearance or "cosmetic" quality is one of the distinguishing features of California citrus.

These results may not be generalizable to all fruits and vegetables. Oranges represent a case where the scarring has been demonstrated not to affect flavor or nutritional quality. Future studies are needed to determine the other fruits or vegetables with which consumers would also trade off blemishes for reduced pesticide use. Another area to investigate is consumers' responses to farmers using IPM techniques. Actual market studies to determine consumers' behavior when offered a choice at the point of purchase is another avenue of research to pursue. The best method of disseminating information on these issues also needs to be investigated.

The task of consumer educators in regard to residue issues is complex. Educational programs must be tailored to specific crops and to the extent and significance of the blemish. The cost and effectiveness of educational programs for the public would need to be considered. The present study has shown that for oranges with 10 to 20 percent thrips scarring, consumer education can substantially increase consumer acceptance. Further research is necessary to document the limits of blemish acceptance as well as to determine consumers' willingness to pay higher prices for reduced pesticide use. In this important area consumer educators must work in collaboration with agricultural scientists, food processors, and retailers.


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David Bunn is Project Director of CALPIRG; Gail W. Feenstra is a Research Associate with the California Action Network; Lori Lynch is an Agricultural Economist with the Economic Research Service of the USDA; and Robert Sommer is Professor and Director of the Center for Consumer Research, University of California, Davis.
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Author:Bunn, David; Feenstra, Gail W.; Lynch, Lori; Sommer, Robert
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Date:Dec 22, 1990
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