Food Quality Perception

Raffaele Silvestri and Piermichele La Sala

Department of Economic Science, University of Bari, Bari, Italy


The issue of quality has a central role in the political and entrepreneurial debate about the competitiveness of the food industry, as well as in our daily life. Assessing how consumers evaluate food quality is not a simple task, however. The difficulty arises from the multidimensional concept of quality, widely recognized in the economic and marketing literature, resulting from the multitude of features and attributes of a food product. Consequently, different groups of consumers in different consumption situations often have different opinions on the quality of the same product.

Quality can be judged in terms of both objective criteria (i.e., chemical-physical characteristics of the product) and subjective criteria, related to how each consumer reacts to those characteristics. It is essential to understand the relationship between these two dimensions in order to give an economic value to the quality. The objective characteristics can be classified into two groups: intrinsic and extrinsic quality attributes. The intrinsic ones concern the product, while the exstrinsic attributes others are related to the appearance of the product, such as the presence of certifications, the brand, and the price. It is not enough that a product has some quality features, however: the consumer must perceive them. The perception plays the role of mediator between the consumer demand for quality and the offer by all the firms in the agro-food supply chain.

Quality is never evident automatically; it must be understood by the consumer based on the features that are able to satisfy personal values. The consumer must know about the quality characteristics in order to use that knowledge to make a decision on whether to purchase the food product. It is important to analyze the perception of quality and the methods used to investigate it for two reasons: (1) from the business point of view, to reduce the risk of failure in the launch of new products on the market (Esposti, 2005a; and (2) from the policy maker's point of view, to understand the links between quality and food safety.

In the economic literature, some scholars (e.g., Lancaster, 1971) have emphasized the definition of “objective” quality dimensions, relating to physical and chemical characteristics, and “subjective” dimensions that relate explicitly to what is perceived by consumers. Steenkamp (1989) has developed the concept of quality perceived as an attempt to mediate between the product characteristics and consumer preferences. The author

Advances in Dairy Products, First Edition.

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© 2018 John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Published 2018 by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

highlights that the perceived quality may differ from the actual one and that consumers can use signals (cues) in order to determine the value of a product.

This concept implies that the assessment of quality is personal—it may depend on the environment or on the situation and is often based on incomplete information. The identification of the categories of objective and subjective quality, and the understanding of the relationships between them are important to those offering the products—it leads them to produce foods that can be accepted by consumers. Indeed, “only when producers can translate the wishes of consumers into the physical characteristics of the product and only when consumers can infer the quality desired by the way the product has been made, then the quality becomes a competition factor for producers” (Grunert, 2005). Supply and demand for quality are then mediated by the consumers' quality perception. In the marketing literature, approaches arising from psychology, developed to investigate the multidimensional nature of perceived quality, are characterized by the use of multi-attribute attitudinal models, in which the overall assessment of a product is explained in terms of perceived characteristics and corresponding subjective assessments for each of these.

The basic limitation of these models, used in marketing studies, is the inability to establish relationships between attributes, as the impossibility of inference of the healthiness characteristic by attributes, such as the fat content or nutritional values, or the reason why certain product features contribute rather than other ones to an overall positive evaluation of the product.

These distinctions are reflected in a very famous model for agricultural economists and for scholars involved in food marketing studies, that is the “Total Food Quality Model” (Grunert 1996), which will be discussed in detail after an overview of different models arising from multidimensional approach (Garvin Model) and from hierarchical approach (Zeithaml Model).

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