Recently a news story broke in Australia that due to the consumption of infected frozen berries from China, several people had contracted hepatitis A. Some of them fell seriously ill and many rushed to the doctor’s to be tested for possible infection, even without showing any symptoms. The story of the “dangerous fruit” was covered by the media and in heated discussions at work, on buses, etc.
Food scares are quite common, and each time they occur, they raise not only medically-related issues, but also many others.
One of the most important is the globalisation of food chains and food paths. In affluent societies, people are not concerned with seasonal or locally produced foods, which is why the supply and demand for food products that are free of local and seasonal limitations has thrived in recent decades. Due to a cheaper workforce, these products often follow bizarre routes. For instance, poultry is shipped to the “East” for processing and then sent back to Europe as chicken. The main reason for this is lower production costs, even with transportation expenses. The process is problematic not only from the carbon footprint standpoint, but also from the socio-economic point of view.
In affluent societies, people have developed a kind of illusion that we live in a post-industrial society because dirty industries have been moved far from our sight.
In order to achieve rapid economic growth through intensive industrialisation China, for example, has managed to pollute 60% of its groundwater. Only 3% of the groundwater supplying urban areas is not yet contaminated with pesticides or other dangerous chemicals. “Western” consumers also take part in this contamination, as we support the type of production that makes products ridiculously cheap, encouraging unreasonable and excessive consumption, as well as maintaining ecologically and socially controversial production and trading practices. Sometimes these consequences make their way into the food chain, thus reaching consumers. And at that moment, people would do anything to avoid it. They often react emotionally and find someone to blame for these market anomalies besides themselves and their little world, as in the example above where the first to be blamed were the Chinese, followed by those responsible for controlling product origin and traceability.
But how can consumers know where the product they want to buy actually comes from? This issue is currently also being raised in Australia when the origin of food in the shops is analysed. “Made in Australia” does not necessarily mean that the product ingredients originate from Australia. That is why they stress the importance of providing information on the product origin and the site of processing and packaging. This information actually helps identify different processes in the food chain. Even the label “proudly Australian owned” that aims at the nationalist sentiments of the consumer does not provide any information about the product chain. It only offers information on the ownership of the company that can carry out the entire process from production to processing outside Australia.
Despite high general support for the free market, when such scares happen, people turn to the state and its agencies, demanding stricter regulation to protect consumers from risk. If the state is responsible for encouraging and regulating practices that ensure food safety in the production chain, consumers should think about the way their own practices and consumption help develop conditions which indirectly support and maintain potentially controversial practices in the food chain. Even easily accessible berries have their price.
Author: Tanja Kamin, as a fan of science fiction (the sociological projection of the future), carefully follows inventions and exciting changes of all kinds brought about by rapid technological and cultural development. She observes, analyses, examines and plans, living partly in science, partly in tales. She is employed at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana as a lecturer and researcher. She is currently working as a visiting professor at the University of Sydney, Sydney Democracy Network. Can be found on Twitter at @TanjaKamin.
Title photo: pda796 via Flickr.
Translated by: Sarah Humar.