The Food Anxiety Depression is a theory with very strong roots in government and food industry policies and in the science community: “What we can and cannot eat is determined by our fears and uncertainties. This anxiety is incited by the progress that has been made during the past 50 years.”
These are the words of a prominent international expert on food and agriculture. Yet, can we trust these words to be true? Are we really that anxious about what we eat? Did the progress of modern society indeed impose a food anxiety depression on all of us?
Moreover, if food anxiety depression is really spread widely, can we still speak of progress? Do we fear our food? From an opposite point of view we may ask ourselves: is our food dangerous?
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Table of contents
Breach of confidence
Perhaps it is not fair to take the opening statement out of context. However, digging a little bit deeper into the opinions of similar experts, this statement appears to be symbolic. The ‘food anxiety depression theory’ is widely supported in the scientific world.
Most scientists back this theory with the same explanation: there is a great breach of confidence between the consumer and the food that is served to him and her. So the theory must be correct? There are many reasons why I don’t trust this theory. This is the first in a short series of articles in which I will explain my objections.
Dubious mass media
I’m a great supporter of the idea that our behavior, feelings, and beliefs are related in a complex way. Every day and the whole day long we are exposed to many, very different signals which influence us.
In today’s multidimensional communication universe, this is not really news. However, the signals that reach us through all the different types of mass media we use, do not have such a very significant impact. Moreover, the role of the mass media is rather dubious when it comes to food confidence.
Researchers who performed a scientific mass media food message analysis discovered a very strange anomaly. When the mass media report about accidents with food, they are the first to raise the alarm about the public’s food anxiety depression. When successful, they act as the public’s mouthpiece by venting out the public’s food anxiety they aroused themselves. At the same time, they indignantly blame the authorities for causing the food anxiety.
Fortunately, the power of the mass media is very limited. Less fortunate is however that the mass media can cause the necessary unrest among the authorities and those responsible in the food industry. With a spin-off to scientists. As a result, those that feel responsible try to explain in the mass media nothing is wrong with our food. Thus creating food anxiety depression as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
An important indicator of people’s trust in food is their behavior. This is why the following question is relevant: has our alleged food anxiety depression led to a fundamental change in food consumption? Short and simple is the answer: no, not at all.
During a meat contamination crisis, the purchase of meat falls. However, after a couple of months sales are back to the old level. Buyer strikes are usually temporary and only a small portion of consumers participate in such a strike.
No matter how convincingly fear usually determines our behavior, in the case of our food consumption, so far, the fears have no lasting effects. So either millions of people are all suppressing or denying their food anxiety depression at the same time, or the mass media, the authorities, the food industry, and the scientists are wrong.
Resistance is futile
Our eating behaviors do not support the food anxiety depression theory. From early in the morning until late at night, we eat. Usually without giving it much thought.
Of course, we cannot avoid food. We may very well eat fully aware that we suffer from food anxiety depression. Perhaps even fully aware of the fact that progress caused this anxiety. No matter how scared we are, we must eat. Resistance is futile.
Balancing pros and cons
Our perception of the risks of what we can or cannot eat is also an indication of our food anxiety. However, risk perception is a complex process of balancing pros and cons. Age, gender, upbringing, and cultural background determine this balancing process and its outcome.
And there are other important determining factors. Is the exposure to the risk voluntary or involuntary? Are we able to mitigate the risk? Is it something that touches upon our concerns? Are we used to the risk or not? Do we perceive the risk as something trivial or not? Does the risk go against our sense of justice or not?
Control and transparency
Researchers who investigated the importance of food safety with an online survey discovered that safety and transparency play an important role in the purchase of food in the supermarket. Shoppers want to know whether or not the food has been checked for safety.
A large group of shoppers is interested in the production method. Specifically when it comes to chicken and meat. They prefer this information as close as possible to the place of purchase, on packaging (labels), or on the shelf. Only a very small group of supermarket shoppers are seriously concerned about food safety.
This study confirms the conclusion that in the opinion of the consumers the links at the beginning of the food chain (government, inspection authorities, and producer) bear more responsibility than the links at the end of the food chain (supermarket and the consumer).
Food anxiety depression is a societal issue?
Despite the complexity of food safety, the answer to the question of whether we suffer from food anxiety depression is surprisingly simple. We hardly perceive any food problems. We perceive our food as safe and healthy. At best, the average citizen perceives food safety as a societal issue.
Food safety is not an individual issue. We do not set any conditions for our individual food safety domain. We have, however, two very strong views on the responsibilities of the food industry and the government.
First, the food processing technology and the control systems used by industry, science, and the authorities must be state of the art. Second, citizens put the responsibility for food safety firmly in the hands of the (controlling) authorities and the business community. When these conditions are not met, they want severe sanctions applied.
In my next article, I will argue that consumers opt for zero food risk yet are not willing to pay for it.
Tell us your experiences with food safety in the comment box below. Is food safety important for you?