An Exploration of Irish Consumer Acceptance of Nanotechnology Applications in Food

Gráinne Greehy, Mary McCarthy, Maeve Henchion, Emma Dillon, Sinéad McCarthy




Nanotechnology has come to the attention of food stakeholders in recent years. It offers many potential benefits to food companies and consumers, for example the ability to produce healthier food without compromising taste, but it has also generated much debate, in particular about potential unknown risks associated with food applications of nanotechnology. This research provides some insights into Irish consumer acceptance of food related applications of nanotechnology and details the determining factors framing consumers’ attitudes. Key issues investigated include consumers’ awareness of and attitudes towards nanotechnology, the subjective values (including perceived risk-benefit trade-offs) that frame these attitudes and the influence of new information on consumers’ attitudes and acceptance. An innovative methodology was applied involving observations of a one-to-one deliberative discourse between a food scientist specialising in nanotechnology research and consumers. The aim of this research was to understand the evolving perspectives of the individual consumer as information was presented to them. During the discourse, the scientist presented a number of pre-defined hypothetical scenarios, illustrating benefits and risks of different food applications of nanotechnology in an effort to establish ‘tipping points’ in consumer acceptance. In-depth pre and post-discourse interviews were also completed with participants (n = 7; 21 observations in total) to determine the perceived influence of the discourse on consumers’ acceptance and the factors contributing to any attitudinal change. Thematic analysis was undertaken with the support of the software package NVivo8. A brief questionnaire was completed by participating consumers to support some of the qualitative findings. While participants were unfamiliar with the concept of using nanotechnology in food production, in general, new information appeared to positively impact their attitudes towards food applications of nanotechnology. This increased their perceived likelihood of purchasing foods that incorporated nanotechnology applications during processing or packaging. Consumers were more accepting of the different applications presented if they perceived the associated personal and societal benefits to outweigh potential risks. However, consumers were not homogenous in their perceptions of the applications. Product characteristics (e.g. perceived naturalness), subjective values including the perceived individual relevance of such ‘nano food’ products, individual risk assessments, trust in stakeholders and personal control, general risk sensitivity and attitudes towards technology, familial relevance of such applications, and societal and environmental factors framed consumers’ attitudes towards the nanotechnology applications presented. Furthermore, acceptance was conditional on potential risks being adequately addressed before ‘nano foods’ reach the market. How risks are ‘adequately addressed’ is a key question emerging from this research. As a small number of consumers participated in this study, the findings presented are by no means representative of Irish consumers. However, the diversity of factors framing participants’ attitudes and acceptance indicates the relevance of the issues raised at a broader level.

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ISSN 2194-511X


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