Food terror


Diners have a surprising reaction when they learn terrorists might have tampered with their food. (Cornell University photo.)

Diners have a surprising reaction when they learn terrorists might have tampered with their food. (Cornell University photo.)

Let’s file this one under, huh, that’s weird.

It’s long been known that terrorists could wreak havoc on our food supply. Cornell University researchers just released a study to determine the effect this might have on consumers. 

This is a tricky kind of experiment to conduct. “Policymakers have been using naturally occurring outbreaks of food- borne illnesses to assess the potential impacts of terrorism on the food supply,” said first author David R. Just, associate professor of applied economics and management in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. But that doesn’t really correlate to a terrorist attack on food, he says. So the researchers created a hypothetical setting to gauge people’s response to potential terrorist tampering with their food.

A hired actor created a “mild disturbance” among a group of 103 volunteer diners. In one situation, he declared he wouldn’t eat the chicken because the morning news had reported there was an outbreak of bird flu 45 miles away. In another setting, he passed on the chicken because the morning news had reported terrorists might be responsible for the bird flu outbreak.

If you heard a terrorist might have tampered with your food, how would you react?

When volunteers thought the bird flu was naturally occurring, they ate 17% less chicken. When they thought terrorists were behind it, they ate 26% less chicken. Only a few people rejected the chicken altogether.

Um, so, when people heard terrorists might have tainted the food they were eating, they still ate almost three-quarters of it? Just says the study demonstrates how much more severely consumers react when they believe terrorists have messed with their chow. Eating 26% less potentially tainted chicken doesn’t sound that severe to me. How would you react?


If you read the comments, you’ll see that a poster took issue with the experiment’s setup, since adequate cooking would kill any bird-flu pathogens and render the hypothetically tainted chicken safe in any case. I contacted Dr. Just at Cornell to inquire further about how the researchers settled on bird flu as their theoretical terrorist threat. Here’s how he explained it:

“We chose this for two reasons. First, because almost nobody knows much about bird flu, and so it was a very ambiguous threat. Secondly, if anyone did know much about it, it would seem plausible to them why we would serve the chicken despite the threat.

“If we had chosen (for example) cyanide, people might suspect the actor was part of an experiment because no one would serve food potentially laced with cyanide. Certainly the amount people would be willing to eat should depend on the particular pathogen or other tampering. We did a bunch of focus groups and asked some open ended questions to figure out how much of a role this played. The results were a bit surprising. When asked an open ended question of why they were willing to eat the chicken despite the potential for contamination, the most frequent answer was that they could bring a lawsuit if there had been any ill effects. More research needs to be done on this, but I think there may be a real issue with having too much faith in the food system.”