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Keywords:

  • food;
  • risk;
  • Australia

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The study
  5. Findings
  6. Trusted information sources
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgment
  10. References

Much publicity has been given to risks associated with food in Western countries. This article draws on an Australian research study using qualitative interviews to investigate discourses and beliefs related to food risks among lay people. It was found that the interviewees were most concerned about dietary fat as a risky substance related to overweight, both because of health reasons and physical appearance. A secondary concern they identified was the processing of foodstuffs and ‘unnatural’ additives. The dominant discourses which were commonly used to organise people's ideas included those concerning ‘trying’ to consume the ‘right’ kinds of foods, the importance of ‘balance’, the notion of food as ‘functional’ for bodily health, the ‘blame’ that often accompanied moral judgements about the diet of people with serious illnesses such as cancer and the ‘battle’ and need for ‘control’ that people with children referred to in relation to making sure that their children consumed a healthy diet. Most people were willing to invest their trust in government bodies and health professionals to provide accurate information about food risks, as well as trusting their own judgement. The relevance of the Australian cultural context for these findings is discussed.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The study
  5. Findings
  6. Trusted information sources
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgment
  10. References

It has been argued by several social theorists that the concept of risk has become central to late modern thinking, pervading every aspect of everyday life with risk awareness. According to Beck (1992) and Giddens (1991), for example, people in late modernity have become increasingly conscious of the hazards produced by the technologies of this era, and concerned about the effects of these hazards on their health and wellbeing. They argue that in an increasingly globalised economy, the risks that are produced by the technologies of late modernity are on an unprecedented scale, distributed around the world. These risks cannot be delimited spatially or temporally, crossing cultural and geographical borders. Their magnitude is such that they are becoming more and more difficult to identify, measure and prevent. What is more, these risks are often invisible to the lay observer, requiring expert identification. As a result, claim Beck and Giddens, debates and disputes about risks dominate public arenas, and anxieties about risk infiltrate private lives. Lay people seek political causes of and solutions to risks as part of their awareness of the dangers produced by modernity.

Heightened awareness of risk is nowhere more apparent than in contemporary representations of food and eating. Controversies and issues relating to foodstuffs have received a high level of news-media attention in recent years in Western countries, including the introduction of products such as genetically-modified (GM) foods, outbreaks of bacteria such as salmonella, the advent of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or ‘mad cow disease’) in cattle and the cloning of livestock. The linking of risk with food consumption is also constantly made in such forums as commercial advertising for foodstuffs and health promotional media campaigns. Food has become profoundly medicalised in its association with health, illness and disease (Lupton 1996, 2000).

In many ways, nutritional advice about the relationship between food and risk, and food and good health, has become more complex and difficult to negotiate for the lay person. The focus in the 1980s and 1990s on salt and cholesterol (Lupton and Chapman 1995) has recently given way to anxiety about ‘bad’ fats (as opposed to ‘good’ fats, which people are exhorted to include in their diet) and ‘bad’ carbohydrates (or high GI [glycaemic index] as opposed to low GI carbohydrates). Simple messages such as ‘reduce fat intake’ and ‘eat plenty of carbohydrates’ have become diversified into such messages as ‘eat plenty of carbohydrates, but only if they have a low GI index’ and ‘reduce dietary fats, but only if they are saturated animal fat or hydrogenated vegetable oil or monosaturated oils which have not been cold pressed, and eat more fats, animal or vegetable, which contain Omega-3 acids’.

It is timely for research which is able to identify how lay people construct their knowledges about food risks, how they respond to the controversies and debates around these risks, how these controversies and debates are affecting people's confidence in food and, as a result, changing people's purchasing and eating habits. Risk-related research can often tend to take a rather ethnocentric and generalising approach to risk, with little focus on how risk knowledges and beliefs may vary between, as well as within, the populations of different countries (Lupton 1999, Tulloch and Lupton 2003). The writings of Beck and Giddens, for example, with their focus on what they see as the globalising nature of risk, often make sweeping statements about responses to risk in late modern societies which in some cases appear to be conjecture rather than based on empirical observations. These sociologists, operating largely as they do in the realm of grand theory, demonstrate little interest in or awareness of how people in different social or cultural groups or of different nationality might respond differently to risk. As a German sociologist, Beck's writings are clearly based on the social, historical and cultural conditions operating in his own country (Dingwall 1999), while Giddens writes from a distinctively English perspective.

The qualitative sociological literature on food risks is similarly characterised by a certain ethnocentrism. The Anglophone literature is dominated by British researchers, who have tended to be preoccupied with BSE and the earlier bacterial food scares, as well as the emergent threat apparently posed by GM foods, as major topics of research over the past decade or so (for example, Fowler 1991, Reilly and Miller 1997, Brookes 1999, Murcott 1999, Nerlich et al. 1999, Shaw 1999, Caplan 2000, Green et al. 2003). This focus is unsurprising, as these topics have received a high level of media coverage in the UK and have been surrounded with political controversies and scandals. As a result of this nationalistic focus, however, little Anglophone research is available which provides alternative perspectives on food risks, or takes a comparative approach. Some exceptions include a small number of studies which have found that beliefs are often intensely linked to factors such as place of residence, gender, ethnicity and age. For example, a European study found that women were more concerned than men about risks such as those posed by GM foods (Almas 1999). Caplan (2000) found that her interviewees living in Wales were more worried about the effect of BSE on the local beef industry than they were about BSE itself, while the opposite was true of Londoners. And a four-nation comparative study involving respondents from France, Belgium, Japan and the US (Rozin et al. 1999) found significant differences in the ways that people in each national group thought about food. The American group associated food most with health and the risks related to foods, and least with pleasure, while the French and Belgiums were the most pleasure-oriented and the least health-oriented, with the Japanese in between. Gender differences were also apparent: in all four countries, women demonstrated attitudes more like the American pattern and less like the French/Belgian pattern, while the opposite was true of men. As these studies suggest, it is important to take into account the structuring role played by sociodemographic factors in shaping lay people's ideas and understandings of risks.

Very little sociocultural research has been conducted in Australia on how food risk issues are constructed and represented. Australia differs in many important respects from Britain and other countries with predominantly North European cultural roots. While also a Western country with strong and established cultural ties to Britain, Australia is much larger in size and has a climate that is very different from Britain's and more diverse, ranging from tropical to temperate to desert. As a result of these geographical conditions, Australia is overwhelmingly an exporter rather than an importer of fresh foods. Most fresh foodstuffs are readily farmed within the country, and the availability of land for running stock has allowed the production of large quantities of beef and lamb. Inexpensive, high quality meat produced in Australia has been a strong component of the nation's diet since farming became established after European settlement in the late 18th century (Symons 1984).

Australia's geographical isolation from Britain and its strong tradition of a self-contained meat industry guarded by strict quarantine regulations have resulted, thus far, in protection from the scourge of BSE. However, the country has been exposed to other food risks. Reports of clusters of illnesses from food poisoning occasionally appear in the Australian news media, and there have also been several highly publicised scares in the past few years relating to the viral contamination of livestock and poultry, in some cases requiring the mass culling of animals. Over the past few years, the increasing incidence of obesity and diabetes in the Australian population has received a high level of government attention and media reportage (Lupton 2004). Epidemiological research has identified rising levels of overweight and obesity to the extent that Australia now rivals the US in terms of proportions of the populace who are overweight or obese (Cameron et al. 2003), including children (Waters and Baur 2003).

These statistics are a major challenge to the nation's iconographic view of itself as a country of sports-loving, physically fit and slim people. As one national newspaper put it:

The image of the bronzed, lean, sports-loving Aussie has long been an integral part of our national identity, alongside our view of our landscape as vast, open spaces and unspoilt wilderness. But the image of the fit and healthy Australian increasingly has little basis in reality, with the nation now laying claim to the second highest obesity rate in the world behind the United States (The Australian, 4 February 2002).

Australia, therefore, provides an interesting case to compare with other Western countries in relation to how people experience and conceptualise risks related to food consumption. The aim of my own Australian-based research was to investigate the ways in which some Australians give meaning to notions of risk associated with the consumption of food in an era in which food risk has attracted a great deal of media attention. I also wanted to explore how factors such as gender, age, socioeconomic status and place of residence influence ideas about food risks.

The theoretical approach to risk adopted in the research takes a social constructionist perspective (Lupton 1999) in understanding risk as a way of giving meaning to phenomena, that constructs these phenomena as dangerous and requiring surveillance and control. What is understood or identified to be ‘a risk’ is constituted via pre-existing knowledges and discourses and is subject to change under different social, cultural, political and historical conditions. This approach to risk highlights the importance of recognising the embedded nature of understandings and practices around risk, and as such is interested in the socio-cultural contexts in which risk knowledges are developed.

The study

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The study
  5. Findings
  6. Trusted information sources
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgment
  10. References

The entire study comprised two parts. The first part was a media analysis of the Sydney press's reporting on food risk issues and the second part involved qualitative semi-structured interviews with Australians about their notions and beliefs concerning food risks. It is the second phase of the research that is discussed here (see Lupton 2004 for the media analysis). The conceptual framework I adopted combined social constructionism and discourse analysis. This approach recognises that any knowledge of the world is mediated through social and cultural processes. Discourses, or organised ways of thinking about, representing and giving sense to phenomena (in this case, food and risks associated with food), are vital to these processes.

A qualitative methodology allows for indepth investigation into people's belief systems and the ways in which they use particular discourses to give meaning and expression to their ideas. A total of 70 people were interviewed for the study over several months in late 2002 and early 2003. Forty were living in Sydney, and 30 living in Bathurst, a small town in an agricultural region approximately 2.5 hours drive west of Sydney. Research assistants living locally (two in Sydney and one in Bathurst) conducted the interviews. The research assistants recruited the interviewees purposively rather than randomly, using their personal networks as a starting point and then snowballing. They were instructed to attempt to maximise heterogeneity in terms of socioeconomic status as much as possible. The sampling was stratified to ensure that an equal number of men and women were recruited, and there was an emphasis on including a good proportion of people with children living at home to elicit their views on their children's diet and food risks. Interviewees from Sydney were drawn from a range of suburbs chosen to incorporate mixed socio-demographic characteristics, from relatively well-off to working class. Including interviewees from Bathurst meant that a comparison between urban and rural dwellers could be made.

As noted above, equal numbers of men and women were interviewed. In terms of age, the largest age-group of the sample (29 people) consisted of those in their middle years (41 to 55 years), with smaller numbers aged between 18 and 24 (14 people), 25 to 40 (16 people) and over 55 (11 people). The vast majority (65 people) of the participants were of British or Irish ethnic origin; of which 55 were Australian born (others had been born in the UK, Ireland and the United States). Those who were not Anglo-Celtic were of Aboriginal, Lebanese, Japanese and Italian (two participants) ethnicity. The largest number of people (38) were in middle class, white collar occupations, the majority of which were middle-income jobs such as clerical work or teaching. Of the remainder, 13 worked in semi-skilled or unskilled occupations, eight were university students, five worked in shops, four were retired and two described themselves as homemakers.

I carried out all the analysis of the interview transcripts. When reading the transcripts I looked for the particular ways in which the interviewee represented food risks, the types of metaphors and other rhetorical devices they used, the type of narratives employed and so on. I identified the dominant discourses appearing in relation to representations of food risks. I also sought to discern any differences in views and experiences in the interviewees’ accounts across socio-demographic groupings. The research questions that organised the analysis were as follows:

  • • 
    How did the interviewees conceptualise risk in relation to food?
  • • 
    What discourses and other cultural conceptual devices did the interviewees rely upon to make distinctions about which foods are ‘risky’ and which ‘safe’ to consume?
  • • 
    How did factors such as place of residence, gender, socioeconomic status and age affect these conceptualisations and distinctions on the part of the interviewees?
  • • 
    Upon what sources of expertise or knowledge did the interviewees rely for their representations and conceptualisations?

Findings

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The study
  5. Findings
  6. Trusted information sources
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgment
  10. References

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ foods

Previous research (Charles and Kerr 1988, Chapman and Maclean 1993, Murcott 1993, Santich 1994, Lupton 1996) has found that when people are talking about foods they should eat and those that they should avoid, the discourse of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods is commonly employed. ‘Good’ foods are those that are regarded as healthy and ‘good for you’, while ‘bad’ foods are detrimental to one's health, and are therefore ‘risky’.

When identifying and discussing bad foods, the vast majority of interviewees, both men and women, said that they were concerned about dietary fat, and took steps to avoid eating too much. Dietary fat was seen to lead to bodily fat, and their weight (rather than simply their health) was the main concern of people who attempted to control their fat intake. Cholesterol was also seen as a health risk related to the ingestion of fatty foods. Most parents also wanted to ensure that their children did not eat an excess of fats, particularly the kind to be found in fast foods or ‘junk food’. Very little distinction, such as is made by dietary experts, was drawn by the interviewees between ‘good fats’ and ‘bad fats’. Nearly everyone described fat in general as risky and detrimental to one's appearance and health, with a small number of people identifying ‘saturated fat’ or ‘animal fat’ as being particularly risky substances.

Despite the attention that was paid to the importance of low salt diets in the 1980s, there was comparatively little mention of salt as a risky substance apart from those interviewees who had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and had been medically advised to cut down on their salt intake. Sweet or sugary foods were also not often mentioned as foods that should be avoided, except for children. Furthermore, despite the growing attention paid by the press and some dietary experts to the link between high GI carbohydrates and overweight and associated diseases, very few people identified carbohydrates as risky. None of the interviewees mentioned the GI indices of foods as an issue she or he considered when deciding what to eat or avoid.

For a large number of people, the nature of the processing that foods underwent was of concern. Highly processed foods with ‘chemicals’, for example, or ‘additives’ or containing high levels of fat were seen as suspect. Many people said that they read the labels on processed food, to check for fat content and, in some cases, additives. Several people also discussed their concerns about the way chickens and livestock were reared. Chickens were viewed a potentially risky food, as were the eggs derived from battery farms, mainly because of the growth hormones, viruses or antibiotics that they were thought to contain as a result of farming methods. For this reason, these people tended to seek out free-range or organic chickens and eggs, or to eat alternative foods, such as fish.

People with medical conditions or chronic illnesses were even more inclined to be wary of ‘chemicals’ in their food. One 53-year-old Sydney woman, a research officer, has cancer. She said that as a result of having this disease she was very concerned about the additives in foods that she ate, including hormones and antibiotics in chickens and pork. She had stopped eating pork and said that ‘we’re careful about the chickens that we buy’. She noted that she had always been careful about her diet, and was dismayed that despite this, she had still developed cancer: ‘I was always very conscious of what we ate and things like that, and it just really annoyed me so much’.

Underpinning this woman's dismay was the cultural notion that ‘eating right’ will give at least some protection against diseases such as cancer. Other interviewees who had experienced serious illness also commented on the moral meanings associated with people's diet and food risks. According to another woman who had survived cancer:

It's interesting, because when you get something like cancer you’re absolutely bombarded with stuff about diets – all sorts of things. One is that – and it's a very powerful thing – that you didn't eat the right food, therefore you got cancer. You had too much of this or you didn't get enough of that, you've done something wrong in your diet or your lifestyle that's caused this whole business with the cancer – big guilt trip (businesswoman, 61, Bathurst).

A discourse of ‘balance’ was evident in many people's accounts, which may well derive from the commonly used official discourse of the importance of a ‘balanced diet’: Some people talked about wanting to find the ‘right balance’ in their diet, meaning that they ate less ‘bad food’ and more ‘good food’. This approach to food is very much oriented towards seeing food as a functional substance which fuels the body and ensures wellbeing, if ‘healthy’, but which may damage the body and result in ill health if ‘unhealthy’. Here the notion of food for health rather than food for pleasure is privileged. This attitude is also evident in the discourse of ‘trying’, when people talk about their dietary choices related to good food and bad food. They try not to eat too much bad food and to eat good food instead. But as this discourse suggests, one must exert effort when doing so, as one's natural inclination may be to eat bad foods. As a 47-year-old female teacher from Sydney put it:

You know how cream buns are so delicious but they don't really give you any value at all – they don't do anything for your body, just for your psyche! So I think it's probably a better thing for your body to look after your body first, no matter how much you’re tempted to look after your feelings.

People spoke of trying to exert ‘control’ over their diets to achieve a ‘healthy balance’. There was also a discourse of control in parents’ discussions. They felt that they needed to exert control over their children to ensure a good diet. Several parents worried about their children becoming overweight from over-eating the wrong kinds of foods, and there was discussion of the general trend towards obesity occurring in Australian children, an issue that had received a high degree of news media attention at the time of the interviews (Lupton 2004). In many parents’ accounts, the issue of their children's diet was represented as pervaded by conflict, in which parents exhorted their children to eat well and children resisted these exhortations in their preference for bad foods.

Genetically modified (GM) foods

The majority of interviewees knew little about GM foods and harboured few concerns about consuming them. Many people were somewhat vague about what GM actually involved, save for the assumption that it involved some kind of modification of foodstuffs at the genetic level: ‘I don't know the specifics about modified food, but I know they have been modified, making them bigger, last longer, stay fresher, juicier’ (male insurance salesperson, 43, Sydney).

Of the interviewee group as a whole, however, no-one knew whether or not the foods they bought contained GM products, and most people did not really care. There were a small number of exceptions among the Bathurst group, which included people who talked about the global Monsanto company and its control of GM seeds and various controversies related to this. This higher level of awareness is largely due to these interviewees’ place of residence, a country town surrounded by farms. They knew about these issues from reading the local newspaper or knowing people in the farming industry.

Many people said that it was difficult to tell which foods were GM, as there did not seem to be any labelling clearly showing that a foodstuff was GM. For example, a 50-year-old Sydney woman (secretary) said that: ‘No, I haven't changed my eating habits because I don't know – well actually I'm quite ignorant of the food that I buy, whether it is modified or not’. Most people felt that there had been very little information circulated about possible risks associated with GM foods in the public domain, which had led to their relative ignorance on the topic. As such, the discourse of the ‘unknown’ was often used in relation to GM foods. People did not know what foods were involved, what was actually done to them, what the possible effects might be and whether or not to worry about it.

A minority of interviewees also employed a discourse of ‘concern’, but this was often linked with that of the ‘unknown’: people were ‘concerned’ because they just ‘did not know’ what GM involved and how it might affect them, particularly in the long term:

Well, we don't know enough about it, do we? It may be fine now, but you look at Mexico where they modified the food for the chickens and the children were hormonally being changed, the young children, because of what we were feeding the chickens, that's what bothers me. I've got children and I've got grandchildren and it bothers me that the food that they’re eating could be changing them. But we don't know until 20 or 30 years down the track (female retired sales clerk, 68, Sydney).

The discourse of the ‘unnatural’ or the ‘abnormal’ was also employed by those concerned about GM foods. A 53-year-old security guard in Bathurst, who himself had grown up as part of a farming family who grew vegetables, argued that while using chemicals such as fertilisers to enhance yields was acceptable, the methods of growing GM food were unnatural:

I can't see any harm in a bit of blood and bone and stuff like that as a fertiliser to increase growth and that, but when you get into other areas I think, nah, it's not right. I'm a firm believer in you grow your own food and this sort of thing, not giving them hormones and things like that. Well, it's unnatural. You know, why mix with something that's never caused any problem – why make it not normal?

The interviewees, therefore, displayed ambivalence or unconcern about the issue of GM food. Although some people worried about the ‘unknown’ aspects of GM foods, most lacked knowledge as to what was actually involved in genetic modification and were even less knowledgeable about specifically which food products were involved. These attitudes perhaps reflect the relative lack of publicity about GM foods in Australia, where, unlike countries such as Britain, there has not been a substantive debate on the risks associated with GM foods and the news media have not given the issue of such risks a high degree of publicity (Lupton 2004).

BSE

As noted above, BSE is a food risk that has also received a great deal of attention in Britain. The interviews included a question on BSE, as although this food risk has not yet affected Australia, the controversies concerning it in Britain and elsewhere have received much Australian media attention over the years, and discoveries of outbreaks in other countries still make the Australian news. Indeed, in the Australian mass media, the problem of BSE for Britain and other affected countries has been presented as a positive opportunity for Australian meat producers, allowing them to move into markets in which beef from affected countries has been banned (Lupton 2004).

Given this media coverage, nearly everyone said that they had heard of ‘mad cow disease’ or BSE, and that they had learnt about it from the news media. The dramatic nature of the ‘madness’ affecting cows and the possibility that it might be transferred to humans had rendered the risk memorable for the interviewees:

It's a terrible condition that slowly works its way through the brain and people start acting like mad cows, I suppose you could say. It degenerates to a point where they really do go sort of crazy, I think (female university student, 52, Sydney).

However, even more so than was the case with GM foods, most people's knowledge was very vague and sketchy, and in many cases, confused or wrong. Several people confused BSE with the recent foot-and-mouth epidemic in British livestock (which at the time of the interviews had received a high degree of news media attention in Australia), or even with GM food. Many people talked about something the cows had eaten as affecting them, but did not know what the problem was with their feed, or assumed it was pesticides or other chemicals. Some people recalled that the disease was caused by parts of animals being fed to cows, but were somewhat confused as to which animals were involved as part of the feed.

None of the interviewees considered mad cow disease was a risk to themselves while living in Australia, because they had been given no indication that Australian meat was affected. BSE was viewed as a problem that affected Britain and some other countries but not Australia, because of strict quarantine laws. When discussing BSE, a 52-year-old Bathurst man (security officer), for example, noted that he was not concerned about the risk of this disease affecting Australian beef, as he trusted the authorities to protect citizens:

I think if [infected cattle] would have got in the country the Health Department would have warned us – I am sure they would have. I think we've got quarantine, health department regulations and inspections. Something like that, I am sure they would have picked up on that, I am sure they would have. I haven't gone overseas to Britain; it would have concerned me then. But I didn't, I live in Australia, and I trust our health authorities, so I didn't make any changes to my meat-eating habits at all.

The interviewees’ beef consumption patterns, therefore, remained unchanged. As one man commented; ‘If it was on the news that they'd found mad cow in Australia, well then I'd stop buying beef – it would have to be on the news for me to take notice and care particularly’ (IT programmer, 45, Sydney). However, some interviewees reported travelling in Britain in recent years and worrying about eating beef while they were there, in some cases avoiding it entirely.

The interviewees’ responses to mad cow disease demonstrate both the power of the media to inform people about food risks (as everyone said that they had learnt about the risk from the mass media) but also people's propensity to not take notice of or retain details that do not concern them personally. BSE, for these Australians, was something that affected others, not oneself, and there was therefore little need to retain information about it. In this instance, Australia was viewed as a protected space, surrounded by the cordon sanitaire of quarantine, and it was only those who travelled overseas to countries they knew to be affected who perceived any personal risk of infection.

Food poisoning

Health risks from the contamination of processed or pre-prepared food, such as food poisoning outbreaks or additives in such foods, often receive attention in the news media (Lupton 2004). The interviewees were asked about the measures they undertook to protect the food they prepared at home from bacterial contamination, and also about their concerns over such contamination in prepared food they bought outside the home.

It was evident from their responses that the vast majority were unconcerned about the risk of food poisoning either in food they prepared at home or in the food they purchased elsewhere. Everyone reported that they followed what they saw as basic food hygiene practices, such as storing cold foods in the refrigerator, avoiding keeping leftovers for longer than two or three days, covering leftover food they stored in the fridge with plastic wrap or foil or putting it in plastic containers, washing fruit and vegetables before eating or cooking them, and keeping raw meats separate from other foods. The practices were taken for granted and largely a product of habit rather than conscious worry about the possibility of contamination. It was simply assumed that food prepared and eaten at home was ‘safe’ to consume, as long as these practices were followed.

Similarly, most people thought very little about the risk of food contamination in products that they bought in supermarkets or at restaurants or takeaway vendors. The general attitude to such risks was complacency. As a 49-year-old Sydney man (project manager) said: ‘I don't really think about it that much’.

This complacency is despite the fact that many of the interviewees had come across dramatic media accounts of food poisoning. Some people recounted lengthy horror stories of bacterial food contamination that they had heard about, typically in a media story. For example, a 42-year-old Sydney woman (factory hand) went into some detail about a television documentary she had seen concerning an incident of food poisoning in the United States that caused the death of a young boy after he had consumed a hamburger in which the meat had been improperly cooked. While such horror stories were clearly memorable for people such as this woman, she said that she hadn't stopped eating such food, ‘but you do tend to look when you go to places to see, you know, which ones you think look a bit more hygienic than the rest of them’.

This approach was evident in others who recounted horror stories, who tended also to describe cases of food poisoning from restaurant or takeaway foods. They described the memorable event of the food poisoning, and then went on to note that it hadn't made a difference to their own eating habits, as they had their own ways of reassuring themselves that the food they purchased was free from contamination. A 45-year-old male accountant from Sydney, for example, also knew about the ‘little boy and hamburger’ story recounted by the woman above. But as he put it, while he was aware that others had suffered from bacterial food contamination, he just did not think about the risk:

I mean, that little boy that died from the hamburger from a chain of stores in America that we don't have out here, and he had a hamburger and he got this unbelievably bad food poisoning and died. So yeah, I mean anything can happen, but you know, it's like driving – you just do it without thinking.

Like BSE, this particular food risk was seen to be foreign, a risk event that had happened elsewhere, and therefore not applicable to one's own life.

A 52-year-old Sydney man (draughtsman) admitted that he tended to go to takeaway places that he ‘felt’ rather than ‘knew’ were trustworthy: ‘Not that I know, but I psychologically think that they’re okay. You don't know what happens in the kitchen do you?’ This type of thinking was evident in many other accounts. Several people said that they might avoid buying food from a takeaway shop that appeared to be dirty or lack hygiene, but nothing was said about concerns over restaurants (where, unlike in takeaway food shops, food preparation areas tend to be hidden from view and thus from the assessment of customers):

Well, I look for the people that are serving it. I've been in a couple of takeaways where they've got greasy hair and they rub their hands through their hair before they pick up the product and things like that, or they make a sandwich and they haven't got the plastic gloves on, and all that sort of thing. And I also look at the shelves while I'm waiting, and if they’re dirty or greasy it just turns me right off (female university student, 52, Sydney).

As these comments suggest, assessment of the relative riskiness of prepared food purchased outside the home often takes place at an almost non-rational level. If the serving counter looks clean, if the staff wear rubber gloves, then all must be well. Here the findings are very similar to those of Green et al. (2003), who also found that assessments of food shops and restaurants were commonly made through such sensory and aesthetic judgements.

Trusted information sources

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The study
  5. Findings
  6. Trusted information sources
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgment
  10. References

As was pointed out earlier, people in Western societies are now faced with a myriad of information about food risks and food benefits, much of which is arcane, complicated or subject to differing opinions from experts. This was noted by several people interviewed in the study, who pointed to the difficulties for lay people of making judgements about which foods one should eat and which should be avoided:

I don't trust anybody. I try to get the information and make my own decision. I listen to the rabid left and the rabid right and read New Scientist and talk to people, but even talking to people you never get a balanced view . . . I just wish there was somewhere I could go to and get a balanced opinion (male accountant, 62, Bathurst).

The mass media, in their quest for sensationalism, were generally thought to be unreliable sources of information. Some interviewees noted that they did not take any notice at all of media reports, as they were either contradictory or implied that every food was risky in some way. According to one young man, for example:

I never believe anything I hear on the news about cancer scares and peanut butter or anything like that. I don't take any notice of any of that – over the years they've said everything's supposed to have cancer. Why bother listening to them? I don't take any notice of them. Now if you lay off all the foods they say are going to give you cancer, you wouldn't eat at all. Use a bit of common sense! (bar attendant, 23, Bathurst).

The exceptions to this distrust of the media were such publications as National Geographic magazine or consumer magazines, or investigative news programmes or documentaries on respected television channels, in which some people had found detailed information on topics such as GM food and food contamination.

People in Bathurst were more likely than those in Sydney to talk about trusting their friends or relying upon family members as sources of information, with mothers particularly nominated as trustworthy and knowledgeable. As a 26-year-old community worker said, she trusted ‘any information that I get from Mum, friends and relatives – my auntie’. Several Bathurst people also noted that they had had farming experience or knew farmers, and were able to draw on these sources for making judgements about food risks. For example, a 56-year-old security officer said that he trusted his brother for information ‘because he's been a farmer and goes about it the right way, and he's very knowledgeable about things’.

Many people said that they trusted their own judgement when deciding which foods were good to eat and which were bad or risky, and preferred to seek out their own information sources and judge whether those were trustworthy or not. This tendency to want to trust oneself in relation to food risk issues has been identified in previous research, particularly in the context in which conflicting information has been provided by the media or expert authorities on food risks (Keane 1997, Lupton and Chapman 1995, Green et al. 2003).

Across the interviewee group, however, even more people talked about trusting expert authorities. The government or discrete governmental bodies, such as the Health Department, were mentioned by many people as a source of authoritative and trustworthy information about food risks. Other authorities to be cited as trustworthy sources of information include the National Heart Foundation, dieticians, university researchers and healthcare professionals, all of whom were seen as disinterested parties. Here these findings differ markedly from those in Britain, where the government and its agencies appear to be distrusted by most people when they are weighing up the risks involved with controversial issues such as GM food or BSE (Keane 1997, Tulloch and Lupton 2002, Green et al. 2003). This difference may exist because, unlike the British government, which has become embroiled in scandals surrounding food scares such as salmonella in eggs and BSE (Fowler 1991, Miller and Reilly 1995, Brookes 1999), the Australian government has remained largely free of controversy. No major food scare has emerged in recent years in which the Australian government has had to take responsibility for either its cause or prevention.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The study
  5. Findings
  6. Trusted information sources
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgment
  10. References

Food risks, for these Australians, were overwhelmingly identified as those related to a high consumption of fats, which was perceived as risky both because of health issues but also, and equally as importantly, because of physical appearance and attractiveness (in terms of body weight). Dietary fat and bodily fat were both regarded with loathing. The spectre of junk food or fast food loomed large in their accounts. In contrast, calorie-rich sweet foods or carbohydrates, although potentially also a cause of overweight, were rarely positioned as problematic. This demonising of fat reflects several decades in Australia of public health and medical warnings about and mass media coverage of issues relating to the health and appearance-related risks of dietary fat. Australian consumers have been warned repeatedly about the relationship between dietary fat and such conditions as overweight and obesity, heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer.

The next in importance in terms of the interviewees’ worries about food risks were the additives in foods, such as hormones and antibiotics in chicken and other meats, salt and chemicals in food. But these concerns were held by far fewer people than concerns about dietary fat, which almost all the interviewees held to some degree, regardless of gender, age or area of residence. Very few people worried about food poisoning and even fewer were concerned about GM foods.

Young people in general were less concerned than older interviewees about their diets, although some highly educated young people were interested in maintaining a healthy diet. The least concerned of all were those who were both young and less educated. This group professed little interest in or knowledge of the healthy or unhealthy aspects of their diets (cf. Green et al.[2003], who found similar findings among their young interviewees). This lack of concern about risk is a common phenomenon among young people, who tend to be more fatalistic about risk-taking than older people, particularly in relation to health issues. This is part of a lifecourse trajectory of risk-taking and risk-avoidance, where there is a significant lack of concern about risk in youth and young adulthood and increasing avoidance of voluntary risk-taking when family and other responsibilities become important in later life (Lupton and Tulloch 2003). In contrast, regardless of where they lived or their educational background, the middle-aged and elderly people interviewed were nearly all interested in avoiding fatty foods for good health and their appearance (in terms of body weight), whether or not they had been medically diagnosed overweight, with high cholesterol or other diet-related problems.

Thus, the major socio-demographic category structuring responses was age. Gender and socio-economic status did not seem to play important roles and place of residence (city or country) only appeared to have an influence on information sources, with Bathurst interviewees somewhat more likely to trust family members or friends, including those working in the farming industry, for information or advice about food risks.

The concern demonstrated by both older women and men about avoiding fat for the sake of their health and their physical appearance suggests evidence of a trend for men to be more aware of their bodies. While women have historically experienced embodiment in a cultural context in which intense focus is exerted upon their appearance (see, for example, Charles and Kerr 1986, Schwartz 1986, Bordo 1990, Heywood 1996), recent research in masculinities has suggested that the male body is becoming increasingly commodified, with greater attention paid to its appearance. As a result, many men have become more self-conscious about the appearance of their own bodies, particularly in relation to body fat and physical fitness (Watson 2000).

When lay people are faced with making decisions about what information about food to trust, they tend to fall back on acculturated belief systems, or conceptual ‘strategies of confidence’ (Sellerberg 1991), which often involve the use of binary oppositions (Hamilton et al. 1995, Lupton 1996, 2000). My data suggest that in addition to the central good/bad opposition that gave meanings to food distinctions, important binary oppositions for the Australians involved in my study included: low-fat/fatty, natural/artificial, plant/animal, clean/dirty, known/mysterious, wholesome/junk and pure/contaminated. In each case, the prior term contributes to notions about ‘safety’ in relation to food, while the latter contributes to meanings surrounding ‘danger’ or ‘risk’. In addition, the dominant discourses which were commonly used to organise people's ideas about food and risk included those concerning ‘trying’ to consume the ‘right’ kinds of foods and the importance of ‘balance’, that drawing on the notion of food as ‘functional’ for bodily health, the ‘blame’ that often accompanied moral judgements about the diet of people with serious illnesses such as cancer and the ‘battle’ and need for ‘control’ that people with children referred to in relation to making sure that their children consumed a healthy diet.

There was little or no suggestion in the interviews of ideas about food risks being organised around notions of local/global or home-grown/imported, as has appeared in some other research. In British research (Caplan 2003, Green et al. 2003), the provenance of food, in terms of its geographic location, was important to the interviewees when they were making judgements about food risks and safety. They spoke about trusting the local butcher, for example, or preferring British-produced food over imported food, sometimes using quite jingoistic phraseology concerning the ‘superiority’ of British food. These discourses were uncommon in my own interviewee data. This difference probably reflects the different sourcing of foods in Australia. As noted above, Australia is a major producer and exporter of fresh foods and there is little reason for Australians, for example, to eat meat or vegetables that are produced elsewhere. Australians, therefore, do not have to routinely make decisions about whether to consume imported fresh foods or instead seek out home-grown foods.

Nor did the Australian interviewees engage in jingoistic talk of the kind displayed by the British people interviewed by Green et al. (2003). No explicit comments were made that ‘Australian produce is better than imported’, for example. Again, perhaps this is because Australians do not have to make routine decisions about whether or not to purchase imported fresh foods, and thus there are no established cultural meanings surrounding the differences between food produced ‘at home’ and food produced abroad. Further, Australian culture lacks the nationalistic rivalry that has fraught European politics and trade and lent a certain tenor to some debates over food risks between European nations (Brookes 1999).

These data emphasise the importance of locale for structuring people's ideas about food risks. They suggest that the geographical, economic and political context is such that Australians do not have to face or think about certain food risks in the ways that, for example, Europeans must. BSE is not (yet) an issue in Australia, and nor is the relative ‘goodness’ of imported foods. While debate concerning GM foods has been very political in Europe, provoking a generally suspicious and hostile reaction from some lay groups (Wales and Mythen 2002), in Australia GM foods are a much less political issue, with little challenges from consumer, religious or environmental groups of the kind evident in Europe. Nor has there been much public debate about them, including in the news media (Lupton 2004), perhaps explaining the somewhat muted response and general lack of concern shown by the interviewees in my study.

The findings suggest that, unlike the British and some other European groups, Australians still generally place their trust in governmental bodies as sources of information about food risks. As I suggested above, this continuing trust may be explained by the fact that Australians have not experienced the kind of governmental scandals and coverups over food risks such as BSE and salmonella in eggs that have occurred in countries such as the UK. Instead, in a country obsessed with sporting achievements and underpinned by the mythology of the outdoors-oriented, physically-fit ideal-type Australian, many Australians appear to have absorbed warnings about the riskiness of a high fat diet and are preoccupied with reducing dietary fat, in their own diet and that of their children. This preoccupation also reflects the continuing focus placed in public forums of the importance of personal responsibility for controlling risk.

Thus, for these Australian interviewees, notions of food risk were not politicised, but rather individualised. Exposure to food risks were largely regarded as ‘internal’ to the individual – that is, a result of poor personal choices – rather than ‘external’, or foisted on people by agencies outside their control, such as government bodies (Lupton 1995). Blame for risk exposure could only be cast upon the self, not upon others.

To some extent, this emphasis on control over diet for the sake of one's health and appearance has led to a morally-laden victim-blaming discourse to operate, as was discovered by people who had conditions such as cancer and found themselves the subject of accusations that their diet was somehow to blame. It is likely that this moralistic discourse will continue and perhaps even become intensified in relation to dietary choices, particularly given the personal and health-expert concern over overweight and obesity that is currently prevalent in Australia and the linking of more diseases and conditions with eating habits.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The study
  5. Findings
  6. Trusted information sources
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgment
  10. References

The Australians interviewed in this study were certainly risk-aware and risk-aversive in the conscious, rational ways described by Beck and Giddens. But so too did they rely on well-established and acculturated strategies of confidence to help them navigate their everyday consumption choices. As Lash (2000) has emphasised, notions of risk (or safety) are often experienced within the world of the taken-for-granted and the non-reflexive. It is here that habitual strategies of confidence help, for they allow people to make food choices without agonising each time over what is ‘safe’ and what is ‘risky’ to consume. In contrast are the highly conscious acts related to avoiding food risks: for example, those related to parents’ attempted control over their children's diet or to people's actions to counter overweight or health problems such as cancer or high blood cholesterol, in which they often found themselves exerting extremely conscious decisions over their food choices which might involve a continual struggle of preference over health considerations.

Gathered in a social and economic context which is increasingly described as globalised, and in which individuals’ everyday experiences are claimed to become more and more similar to those of others in different locales, these data highlight that not only ‘we are what we eat’ but ‘we are where we eat’ (Bell and Valentine 1997). Contrary to Beck's and Giddens's claims about the generalised risk consciousnesses of late modernity, the findings suggest that people's risk-related beliefs and experiences are still commonly structured through social and geographical location. While, for example, many Australians may share the concerns of the British with body fat, and the types of food that might lead to overweight, they have remained untouched by the spectre of BSE and have had little occasion to cast doubt on the regulatory activities of governmental bodies in relation to food safety issues. As a result, food risks remain unpoliticised in Australia: exposure to such risks is viewed a problem of self-regulation and control.

The data suggest, therefore, the importance of taking into account regional, geographical and national as well as other socio-demographic and cultural differences when analysing the ways in which people respond to risk. My research suggests that the political, economic and geographical climate in which one lives, in conjunction with acculturated notions of nationality and nationhood, may be as important as one's gender, socioeconomic status or age in contributing to the development of the often taken-for-granted unarticulated assumptions, affective judgements and moral practices (Lash 2000) that contribute to risk cultures.

Acknowledgment

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The study
  5. Findings
  6. Trusted information sources
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgment
  10. References

The research project discussed in this article was funded by a Discovery Grant to the author by the Australian Research Council.

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  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The study
  5. Findings
  6. Trusted information sources
  7. Discussion
  8. Conclusion
  9. Acknowledgment
  10. References
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