Alison Shaw (1999)
'"What are 'they' Doing to our Food?": Public Concerns about Food in
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 3, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/4/3/shaw.html>
To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary
Received: 26/8/1999 Accepted: 23/9/1999 Published: 30/9/1999
|Key informant(s) 1: technical communications manager and senior environmental manager, food retailer|
|Key informant 2: chair, government advisory committee on genetically-modified food|
|Key informant 3: technical manager, American biotechnology company|
|Key informant 4: public health nutritionist (editor of an academic journal on nutrition)|
|Key informant 5: head of a branch of the Food Contaminants Division, MAFF|
|Key informant 6: lead policy researcher, consumer group|
|Key informant 7: chair, food science and technology professional body|
|Key informant 8: external affairs manager, food research group|
|Key informant 9: co-director of a food campaigning group|
|Key informant 10: science editor of broadsheet newspaper|
|Key informant 11: food policy academic (professor)|
|Key informant 12: independent consultant, food and consumer affairs|
|Key informant 13: representative of the Health Education Authority|
|Key informant 14: food science advisor, National Farmers' Union|
|Key informant 15: communication and regulatory affairs manager, UK biotechnology company|
|Key informant 16: (head of food science)|
|Key informant 17: director, environmental/organic food campaigning group|
The first example was the famous 'E for additives' story...The second trend is safety...we had...food poisoning outbreaks, and the last and the ultimate case of this is BSE...The next one...that is very live, current and active, is genetic manipulation, and this scenario is still very much unfolding (food producer)
It's been one thing after another...I don't see it as discrete issues of food safety. I see it as a rolling issue (food policy academic)
there's been a number of scares...(and) people began to think to themselves, "Is our food safe to eat?" (National Farmers Union)
there has been a sea change in public attitudes towards food safety and food quality collectively as a result of the food scares...the public are asking a series of questions that they were never asking before. "Where has my food come from?" "How did they produce it?" "Did they look after food safety and quality aspects?" (organic food pressure group)
we seem to have a complacency now about food scares in the UK...I think the public have got food scare fatigue...the media likes to make it their headlines, but the public are much too sanguine about it now (independent consultant on food and consumer affairs)
there's been so many of these little mini food scares, that in an odd way it's kind of desensitised people. I think they find them amusing to read, but ultimately I think they don't believe them (newspaper science editor)
people want to know questions about where is it from, where has it been produced...I think there's just an enormous curiosity about all aspects of food from that point of view, it's origins, it's integrity, that we just didn't have before BSE, before salmonella and listeria... Certainly genetic modification, that goes back to the integrity of the food (food retailer)
the debate about additives articulated for the first time about food safety a rumbling unease about changes in the nature of food production...(and) about what have "they" done to our food...What has been happening in the last twenty years is a realisation that they don't control their food...they don't know much about what it is (food policy academic)
We're not a rural nation, we're very very urbanised..that has helped to provide a bigger gulf between people's cosy expectations...what we think we want the countryside to look like and how it should produce our food, to how reality is (food retailer)
most people don't really know much about how food is made, how farms run...We've become divorced from the countryside, where our food comes from (National Farmers Union)
people are becoming more and more detached from the way that food is produced...to some extent it's due to a greater involvement of industry in packaging and processing and changing the form we get our food in...I think that has generally given people less and less knowledge of what is involved in their food...People have become more reliant on external people (American biotechnology company)
public trust has been severely challenged and threatened, and members of the public have been appalled and shocked to realise that civil servants within government (and) their political masters can't be trusted to deal with the information that they're given, that they're too interested in their own ends (food retailer)
there's a lack of trust, public trust, in the way the systems protect people (independent consultant on food and consumer affairs)
people now think that they can't trust scientists, because BSE was a major disaster...The public's view is that we scientists are not capable of giving good and sensible advice, and therefore if we say that there might be a risk, they should assume there will be, and that's very difficult to overcome (government advisory committee on GM food)
the public seem to trust campaigning groups more than anything...they're inevitably going to be seen as the whistle-blower...People don't feel campaign groups have a hidden agenda...the supermarkets must have a commercial agenda, the government with BSE...was seen as protecting the (farming/industry) lobby..(whereas) the agenda for campaign groups is to highlight what we want to know, so there isn't any hidden agenda in the public's mind (food retailer)
we've grown away from an understanding at the rural level...understanding the spoilage and storage characteristics of not having a fridge...of cooking your meat until it's totally and thoroughly cooked...that were simply passed down from generation to generation...they've really all gone because of changes in lifestyle and changes in eating habits (food research group)
the knowledge of food hygiene and the practice of food hygiene by people in general is nothing like it ought to be (food science/technology organisation).
eating food is intrinsically dangerous. Food is biological material, it's not stable against microbial attack...Our forebears knew this very well...(but people) began to lose that intrinsic knowledge...(it has) sort of dropped out of the educational awareness of a lot of people. So, the industry now is having to go back and say "We need to go back and teach people about the basic rules of food hygiene" (food producer)
people are well aware...that one in two chickens carries salmonella, or whatever the figures are...It very quickly becomes apparent that it isn't the individual's fault, and most people make that connection, that they're being sold rubbish (food pressure group)
there are problems of food safety and they are structural, they are to do with changes in the nature of production, they are to do with incompetencies in the food supply chain (food policy academic)
Organic food...there's a perception that it's safer, that there's less pesticide residues, that it's better for you (organic food pressure group)
it has been impossible for the public to get a good handle on the whole beef-on-the-bone business...Before, the risk was zero, but now we're being told that it's one in however many million, and we don't have the structures, or the tools, or the intellectual capacity to really assess what that means for us...It's an incredibly complex area...Even some of the world experts grapple with the same problems (independent consultant on food and consumer affairs)
You can say about BSE only 29 people have died, therefore it's no risk. (But) I think the public was absolutely right to be deeply angry...I think there was a much more sophisticated range of positions...Using the levels of risk approach, you could say "Well it was only 29 deaths, who cares? It is peanuts compared to coronary heart disease, a hundred and sixty thousand a year...you've got it out of proportion". No they haven't...The public saw the big picture..It was pretty good understanding (food policy academic)
people are able to comprehend the idea of a qualified risk..that says "As far as we know" or "The number of cases has been" or "We estimate the risk to be"...People can understand that information and it certainly doesn't need to be simplified by politicians unless they have another agenda. In the case of BSE, there was another agenda, to do with the preservation of the meat trade, which did shape the way that statements got changed from scientifically qualified ones to politically unqualified ones (food pressure group)
When the beef-on-the-bone ban came in, a number of people said, "Why wasn't I given the choice?..Let me know what the risks are, but I will choose what to eat. Who are you to decide what I eat?" (food retailer)
Suddenly people realised this was going too far, thay wanted a choice, and they thought the risk was so infinitessimal, in their view, that perhaps it wasn't necessary" (National Farmers' Union).
(During) the beef-on-the-bone incident..the government said "We're doing this for the good of the British people", (but) most people said "This is ludicrous, the risk of getting BSE from this is very low, so why are we doing this" (newspaper science editor).
BSE, is the last time that the consumer will allow a deligated body, be it government or industry, to tell them reliably that things are safe...Consumers views have been damaged by the inability of these professionals...to defend it against all risk...I think that really represents a watershed in the way that consumers in the UK, their attitudes to risk and safety occurs (food producer)
there is an enormous level of ignorance about what can and cannot be done (in genetic modification) (independent consultant on food and consumer affairs)
most members of the population are extremely ignorant about science...They don't know anything about biology...Biotechnology..is quite a difficult concept...People are uncertain about what's really involved (National Farmers Union)
the public doesn't understand the risk in GMOs, and naturally say, "If I don't understand it, I don't want anything to do with it. Stop. Wait until I understand and catch up, and then we'll assess what we can and can't do (food producer)
(The public) know very little (about biotechnology)..and therefore they are nervous..Perhaps lack of knowledge is a process that generates caution (National Farmers Union)
the understanding is limited...Industry is hoping that a little bit of education will help, (but) when you tell people a little they get more worried, when you tell them quite a lot they get more worried. It's only when they know a great deal that they can begin to have a more balanced approach (government advisory committee on GM food)
I think there's higher awareness, but I'm not sure that there's much deep understanding out there (newspaper science editor)
(There is) deep suspicion about GM food...they have snippets of information...and by and large they don't like what they see...It's the weirdness of it all...the abilities to cross species gives a whole new realm of tampering to those who produce our food...These are the scary things, and these are the things that worry people (food pressure group)
people feel it is unnatural to messing about with genes, so they feel wary about it even if they can't necessarily explain why they feel wary about it (consumer group)
the public are very much smarter than they're credited for..(They) make very sound and rational decisions, but it's based on the information they've been given...I think they're just victims of the information they've given....which is deliberately designed to mis-lead them (American biotechnology company)
there's a lot of myths and scaremongering going around, which doesn't do anyone any good (independent consultant on food and consumer affairs)
people are concerned about the way that (GM foods) are approved...they are concerned about not knowing what the long term consequences are going to be and that you're messing with something that you don't really know about (consumer group)
the things that worry people (are) that there is tampering going on without sufficient testing (food pressure group)
People don't realise how much, and what kind of regulation there is (American biotechnology company)
as a society we need to come up to speed with understanding and grappling with these issues...We can't stop biotechnology, that would be like trying to stop ice from melting in the sun..The rate of change..is something that as a society we are really being confronted with for genetic modification (food retailer)
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