Inclusiveness of consumer access to food safety: Evidence from certified rice in Vietnam

 Nguyen H.D. My, Matty Demont, and Wim Verbeke   |  

“Food safety can no longer be the luxury of the rich since all people should have the right to an adequate supply of safe and nutritious food.”  Although there are many certification standards that are appreciated in different ways by consumers, in this study, we focus on certified rice as a product category. Our evidence-based results provide crucial insights for policymakers and value chain actors in their efforts to develop food safety certification in the context of developing countries in South and Southeast Asia that struggle with food safety concernsFpo while being major players in the world market.

Do the poor have equal access to certified food or is food safety only accessible to wealthy consumers that can afford to pay for it? Food safety is a key concern for food security of consumers in Asia. The World Bank (2016) recognized that food safety is topping the policy agenda in Vietnam. Since Vietnam is the world’s third largest rice exporter, it contributes significantly to global food security and therefore food safety of Vietnamese rice is a global concern. Food safety related issues are frequently published both in the Vietnamese media and in the academic and policy context.

During the last two decades, there were more than 3,000 reported outbreaks, with almost 100,000 cases of food poisoning, causing almost 800 deaths. However, these numbers represent officially reported cases only, which suggests that the actual numbers are even higher due to unrecorded cases in the communities.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbates this problem; due to lockdowns, mobility restrictions and other measures, food safety inspections have decreased and food safety violations increased. These trends emphasize that actions to improve food safety—and the broader concept of food quality—should be implemented imminently in Vietnam.

Rice is an important staple commodity for both domestic consumption and export in Vietnam. The average per-capita rice consumption in the country is more than 300 grams per day. However, despite the high volume of Vietnam’s rice exports, the export price is not as high as expected due to its inferior intrinsic quality on the international market, frequent rejections of shipments due to pesticide residues, and insufficient investment in extrinsic quality cues such as food quality labelling and branding. Additionally, evidence is growing that Vietnamese consumers, especially those who live in urban areas, increasingly demand food with quality guarantees, e.g. quality labels, in the context of Vietnam’s rapid economic growth and fast urbanization.

Nevertheless, it is observed that the management and regulatory system for food quality labels and certification in the domestic food market is currently ineffective due to overlapping functions and unclear allocation of roles and responsibilities among different governmental agencies. This situation causes challenges and uncertainty among consumers seeking to match their preferences with their food choices. While the quality and safety of certified rice labelled with certain official standards can be guaranteed to some extent, non-certified rice, however, does not provide such guarantee.

There is still a lack of transparency of information on rice labels (e.g., lack of clear indication of origin, production methods, quality assurance, nutrition information, instructions for preparation and cooking, and production and expiration dates). Also, in many cases, the information on the rice labels is insufficient and improperly presented. As a result, according to a survey by the Information Center for Agriculture and Rural Development, more than 90% of Vietnamese consumers purchase unlabeled rice or rice without proper information on the label due to the lack of reputable and quality rice brands.

Assessing consumers’ attitude and behavior towards certified rice is indispensable to provide insights into an effective and compelling certification strategy that fosters inclusiveness of consumer access to good quality and safe food in Vietnam. While the actual food safety of rice can be verified and addressed via food safety inspection tools, it is important to assess consumers’ perceived food safety of rice through food labelling to ensure the food safety and integrity of the products, as consumers have the right to be informed in a transparent way about the quality and authenticity of the food they purchase and consume. In order to upgrade the safety of Vietnamese rice, it is essential to refer to the primary rice-producing area of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta (MKD).

The MKD plays a crucial role in ensuring national and global food security. More than half of national rice production and about 90% of Vietnam’s rice exports are supplied by the MKD. However, chemical use in rice production in the MKD has increased dramatically during the past decades, often leading to significant overuse and food safety issues such as food poisoning. The common approach to enhancing food safety along food supply chains is the development and implementation of quality standards and certification systems.

The Vietnamese food market has responded to food safety concerns by offering various types of certified products. Examples of certification applied on rice are Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), good agricultural practices (GAP) and organic food.

VietGAP is a national production standard, issued in 2008 by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development  in order to improve food quality and safety in Vietnam. VietGAP is currently applied to various food crops such as fruit, vegetables, and rice. Together with VietGAP, rice is sold on the market under GlobalG.A.P., a widely applied GAP scheme in many countries around the globe.

In January 2019, the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) released v2.0 of its “Standard on Sustainable Rice Cultivation” and is piloting this GAP standard in several countries in Africa, the Americas and Asia, including Vietnam. In comparison to GAP labels, organic rice labels are expensive and occupy a market niche, primarily in urban areas in large cities.

It should be noted that the Vietnamese government does not currently have a comprehensive and official national standard for organic products. While the common feature of the food quality assurance schemes in Vietnam is to guarantee that the product is produced in compliance with food safety regulations, organic standards may differentiate themselves from others by adopting more stringent regulations in terms of the use of chemical and synthetic inputs (e.g., pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, antibiotics, hormones, genetically modified organism).

Food safety is an abstract concept; to assess consumer access to food safety, we need a construct that can be surveyed and measured. From the consumer point of view, food safety is a so-called credence quality characteristic, which implies that consumers cannot evaluate or experience food safety prior to purchasing a good, but instead have to rely and put trust in related information provided.

Therefore, in this paper, we focus on certification as an entry point for food safety. In Vietnam just like in other countries in Southeast Asia, policymakers tend to focus on retail modernization by encouraging supermarketization. Crowdingin of investment in private food safety management systems is considered a more cost-effective instrument for improving food safety than food safety regulations.

However, Vietnam’s retail modernization policy only reaches an estimated 40% of the urban population in the capital Hanoi. Moreover, despite the emergence of products featuring food certification in Vietnamese food markets, little is known about the inclusiveness of domestic consumer access to certified food.

To address this evidence gap, we focus on Southeast Asia’s main staple crop and investigate how socio-economic determinants like income condition psychological determinants of certified rice purchase behavior by urban consumers in Vietnam. Certified rice is an emerging product in the Vietnamese market. Although there are many certification standards that are appreciated in different ways by consumers, in this study we focus on certified rice as a product category. Our evidence-based results provide crucial insights for policy makers and value chain actors in their efforts to develop food safety certification in the context of developing countries in South and Southeast Asia that struggle with food safety concerns, while being major players in the world market.

We developed a conceptual framework for studying inclusiveness of consumer access to food safety. The framework was empirically tested through the case of certified rice in Vietnam, an important staple for national and global food security.

Purchase behavior of certified rice was surveyed with urban consumers in a major city in the Mekong Delta in the South of Vietnam and explained through a set of psychological determinants that, in their turn, are conditioned by socio-economic determinants through consumers’ interaction with the food environment. Income was found to largely condition psychological determinants of certified rice purchase. Low-income consumers were found to be 16% less likely to afford certified rice, relative to the uppermiddle income class, which reveals Vietnam’s challenge to render food safety inclusive for staple crops such as rice.

Ensuring food safety necessitates a coordinated multi-disciplinary and multi-agency approach where governments take the responsibility to develop inclusive food safety policies and establish effective partnerships among relevant public and private actors in the value chain. Governments should create an enabling environment in which value chain actors are encouraged to invest in private food safety governance and certification.

This can be achieved through policies such as food safety regulations and product liability laws that create “negative incentives” for supplying unsafe food in the form of adverse consequences, but also by creating favorable conditions for private sector investment in standards through market driven incentive mechanisms.

However, in case the private sector underinvests or does not provide inclusive access to certified food for all income groups in society, government intervention is needed. “Food safety can no longer be the luxury of the rich since all people should have the right to an adequate supply of safe and nutritious food.”

Through consumer surveys, we were able to demonstrate that income is a major socio-economic determinant conditioning purchase of certified rice in urban Vietnam, which is in line with previous studies. As certified rice is found to be significantly more affordable to urban upper-middle income consumers, ensuring equitable access to food safety for low-income groups is a basic consumer right that should receive top priority by governments and policy makers in developing countries such as Vietnam. National food safety and quality control systems and market driven certification systems can build on the insights of our consumer study.

We find that consumers’ belief in the utility or “value for money” of certified rice is a major driver in their purchase decisions. Hence, demonstrating this value to the general public through communication programs is fundamental. In particular, since consumers’ beliefs in health benefits are a crucial driver in purchase decisions, labeling and communication programs should focus on the health benefits of certified rice.

The latter is consistent with recent findings from Nigeria, where urban consumers expressed strong preferences for SRP sustainability attributes related to food safety of rice. The success of labeling and communication programs, however, crucially hinges on consumers’ trust in the food safety certification system, which was found to be a determining factor.

Therefore, it is of utmost importance that trustworthy certification of claims is conducted and information channels are deployed that consumers can access and rely on when purchasing certified rice. Secondly, while consumers’ perceived self-competence in identifying certified rice was found to significantly drive purchase behavior, knowledge did not appear to be a determining factor.

This suggests that labeling and communication programs should spend due attention to the development of visual cues that convey the key messages and are easily recognized by consumers in various market outlets. For example, while the Sustainable Rice Platform (SRP) successfully piloted the SRP Standards throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas, so far it has not yet managed to establish its name and reputation in retail markets due to lack of a recognizable on-product logo.

The newly designed “verified SRP” label was finally launched in July 2020 and is limited for use on products subject to third-party verification. Therefore, further investment will be required in (i) branding to improve the visual recognition of the SRP label; and (ii) market research to assess retailers’ and consumers’ awareness and test their response to the SRP label and associated communication program.

By endorsing and encouraging the implementation of standards such as VietGAP, GLOBALG.A.P., Organic, HACCP, and SRP in combination with investment in national communication programs on food safety, policy makers can create an enabling environment for crowding-in of private sector investment in food safety certification of rice. It is expected that simultaneous demand and awareness creation and stimulation of supply will increase affordability of certified rice and foster inclusiveness of consumer access to food safety for staple crops such as rice in Vietnam.

Our framework focuses on a single behavioral outcome, i.e. consumers’ purchase behavior, and interprets the gaps between the purchase propensity curves of different socio-economic classes as evidence for non-inclusiveness. Outcome-oriented studies like ours can complement other, more process-oriented, approaches to inclusiveness focusing on social embeddedness. For example, Vietnam’s supermarketization approach towards food safety tends to alienate or exclude sizeable portions of the population.

To foster inclusiveness, the authors argue for more flexible food safety policies that are socially embedded in local food cultures through a balanced portfolio of public and private interventions. The design of such policies will require a thorough understanding of (i) local food cultures and (ii) how the food environment interacts with it.

For example, our study can help in assessing whether a policy that seeks at embedding novel retail formats in local shopping practices truly generates an inclusive outcome in terms of consumer access and is not biased towards wealthy consumers. Socially embedded factors such as social norms, social values, and social learning may play a crucial role in shaping purchase intentions and buying behavior. This is becoming increasingly important in the context of rapid urbanization, globalization, and expanding social networks (e.g., through social media).

The market for certified food in urban areas in Vietnam is in the early development stage; future consumer studies should extend to rural areas when the market for such products further develops and expands to these areas. Moreover, our sample focuses on urban consumers from a large city, hence the results cannot be generalized to the entire Vietnamese population.

The data was self-reported and hence may be prone to recall or social desirability bias. In response to the increasing demand for food safety certification, future studies should investigate opportunities for other certified food products in the domestic market (e.g., dairy, meat, seafood, etc.).

Little is known about inclusiveness of consumer access to food safety. Therefore, our study provides a conceptual framework that can be used by policy makers and value chain actors in their efforts to develop inclusive food safety certification strategies in the context of developing countries in South and Southeast Asia that are major food exporters and struggle with food safety concerns.

Read the study:
My NHD, Demont M, Verbeke W. (2021) Inclusiveness of consumer access to food safety: Evidence from certified rice in Vietnam. Global Food Security, Volume 28.

Leave A Response