Why is food safety important and what is the connection with the food anxiety depression theory?
In the first article of this series, I explained food anxiety depression as a political, business, and scientific theory. From various perspectives, I tested the credibility of this theory. Specifically from the consumer perspective, this credibility seems very low.
Our behaviour gives away how confident we are about our food, as well as our fears and uncertainties. As has been referred to in the first article. Another indicator of confidence in food may be the consumer’s willingness to pay for greater food safety.
When it comes to food, citizens also have a lot of other priorities and worries. Governments, businesses, and (agricultural) scientists are mostly deaf and blind to these other concerns and anxieties.
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Table of contents
- 1 Why is food safety important?
- 2 The price of bacteria-free chicken
- 3 Why is food safety important?
- 4 All citizens have split personalities
- 5 In Food We Trust
- 6 Complex food systems versus changed risk assessments
- 7 Competence is the basic food safety value
- 8 Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
- 9 Citizens don’t opt for zero risk
- 10 Constantly changing perspectives
Why is food safety important?
Consumers want to eat as healthy as possible, although we are not always willing to pay a high price for it. We think it is important for our health, but we also want convenience and freedom. Sometimes those interests clash.
The price of bacteria-free chicken
Consumers are willing to pay an extra 55 euro cents per kilo of poultry meat to halve the risk of contamination with salmonella and campylobacter jejuni bacteria. This is about 10% of the current price per kilo of non-organic chicken.
Salmonella is a bacteria that may cause typhoid fever. In Europe, campylobacter jejuni is the number one cause of bacterial gastroenteritis with almost 250,000 confirmed cases annually. Over 50% of the chicken sold in the UK carries the campylobacter jejuni bacteria.
TIP: never wash raw chicken because the drops spread the campylobacter jejuni bacteria through the entire kitchen.
The question is, of course, whether 55 euro cents per kilo of chicken meat is a lot or not. The question is also whether the consumer is willing to pay that additional price in the event of an economic downturn. Moreover, price is an instrument with which supermarkets, the main suppliers of poultry meat, fight each other.
Why is food safety important?
Whether consumers relate the costs of food safety, to their health and the price they have to pay for their daily groceries, is unclear.
Neither is it clear whether consumers relate food safety, their health, and the price of the groceries they buy, to some other of their very significant concerns. And there are many of those concerns, such as animal welfare, environmental pollution, biodiversity, and landscape, fair trade, or child labour.
However, all these concerns have to compete with other very important personal goals, such as freedom, economic well-being, and self-fulfilment.
All citizens have split personalities
There is another very serious problem. Government and business policies, and in their slipstream the sciences, treat us as split personalities. They separate our values such as our ethical position over animal welfare from the economic gains of agriculture.
At the same time, government and business authorities reproach us because we don’t connect our environmental demands with the price, quality, and safety of our food. Governments and businesses consistently oppose the domain of the citizen consumer to the domain of the ethical citizen.
However, businesses and governments do not seriously support citizens to pursue ethical goals when food is at stake. As a consumer, we’re told to vote with our wallets. As a citizen, we’re told to vote for the community with our best intentions. Some even claim that we have multiple personalities. How credible is that?
In Food We Trust
The lack of support from businesses and politicians when it comes to citizens’ ethical demands concerning food contrast with the support businesses and politicians get from consumers. Most consumers trust food products from supermarkets and small shops and responsible institutions.
Governments and business communities are very anxious over food-borne risks because of the possible damage to their image and legitimacy. This makes sense because the consumer puts the responsibility for food safety square in their hands.
Complex food systems versus changed risk assessments
There are two scientific explanations of the food anxiety theory.
The first explains that food production has become very complex. There is a lot of technology involved. The production and trade chains are long and global, and not very transparent. This complexity, supposedly, makes consumers insecure and anxious.
The second theory is that over time consumers have started to look at risks differently. Consumer nature and perception of risks have changed. Trust is inevitable. Without trust, consumers would not be able to eat anymore.
Competence is the basic food safety value
However, another explanation makes more sense. The best way to understand consumers’ attitudes towards food safety, is by assessing their shared basic values. Consumers’ trust is in general mainly based on those values.
Competence is the crucial value citizens share when it comes to food safety. Any loss of trust is caused by a perceived lack of competence. In the eye of the consumers, governments and businesses are competent when they seem to understand their trade.
The prevailing citizen’s perception of governments and businesses is critical trust. However, a lack of compassion, openness, and fairness on the part of governments and businesses, often cause severe breaches of confidence.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)
When it comes to food, citizens’ health is not the only issue at stake. Their health is not perceived as their only risk. As has been explained above, citizens are also anxious about political (power), economic (money), social, and ethical risks.
For example, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not seen by consumers as a threat to human health. Citizens worry about GMOs because they make food production dependent on a few (mainly American) multinationals.
Citizens don’t opt for zero risk
There are substantial differences in citizens’ perceptions of collective versus personal or family concerns. For example, high-voltage cables cause a few anxieties among the general public. However, when you happen to live underneath those cables, you will experience that those risks are mainly on your plate.
The number of victims of salmonella or campylobacter jejuni infections may be small, but if it happens to be your turn, you’re the one who’s racing to the loo every 5 minutes. And there is another perspective. The differences in opinions between food safety experts and the public are much smaller than is always assumed or are probably completely absent.
For example, zero risk is not the position citizens take. When weighing the advantages and disadvantages of food risks, people invariably consider the advantages to be more important than the disadvantages.
Constantly changing perspectives
Citizens’ perceptions about food, food safety, and the systems, institutions, and the people who are responsible for them, are structured in a complex way and are constantly changing. However, this knowledge in itself does not lead to more trust. Competent governments and businesses, which are experienced as the most reliable, contribute to more trust.
In my third and last article in this short series, I will argue that healthy consumers are hardly at risk of food-borne diseases. This means that governments and the food industry do a great job when it comes to food safety. However, they do a rather lousy job when it comes to other citizens’ concerns related to food.
Tell us your experiences with food safety in the comment box below. Is food safety important for you?