Symposium: Food Safety and Security

Food scares and GM: Movement on the nature / culture fault line

Ruth Fitzgerald and Hugh Campbell, University of Otago

The term ‘food scare’ describes contemporary anxiety about the consumption of genetically modified (GM) food. Food scares are often assumed to be symptomatic of the general malaise of late modernity and the associated undermining of scientific authority. There is no doubt that recent food scares have become global media events. However, these scares have a long history, significantly predating the ability of British tabloids to sell copy by using provocative terms like ‘frankenfoods’ (Fitzgerald and Campbell 2001).

Since the Industrial Revolution, food scares have become particularly potent. They collapse the reassuring dualism of nature/culture in Western thinking: we can no longer easily distinguish the industrial from the ‘natural’ food product at the moment of ingestion. The loss of this familiar organising principle reverberates along the fault line of nature/culture, repeatedly unsteadying our already ambivalent relationship with food. The recent GM food debate in New Zealand has done nothing to settle this profound cultural disquiet.

Media Reporting of Food Scares

Although precedents for food scares lie deeper in history, there is no doubt that they have recently become an extraordinary media phenomenon (see Figure 1). The term ‘food scare’ first appears in print media in the mid-1980s following an episode of malicious lacing of Tylenol tablets with cyanide in the US (Campbell and Fitzgerald 2001). Media debate at this time focused on how products might be made tamper-proof, to protect consumers from random malevolence transmitted through the trading networks of transnational agrifood and pharmaceutical companies. At this stage, there is a sense in such articles that ingenuity and pragmatism can still save the day.

Figure 1: English language media articles about food consumption
and production making use of the term ‘food scares’.

Source: Reuters Business Briefing Database.

By the time of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, however, confidence begins to slip as the possibility dawns of radioactive contamination of the food supply, and government reassurances appear somewhat less than believable. An edgy uncertainty now emerges in media reports of food scares, and the public acts in response. The British ‘curried eggs’ fiasco of 1988 involving allegations of salmonella contamination of British eggs, for example, resulted in a lingering downturn in their consumption (North and Gorman 1990). Glass and screws begin to turn up in baby food (although it is interesting to note that such stories are generally never in the county from which the report itself is filed). Listeria arrives in cheeses and fishmeal. Then, from 1997, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and, perhaps of most interest to our own research, food technologies begin to be interrogated within the public sphere: microwave cooking, bovine growth hormones in cattle, and the use of biotechnology in food production all become suspect.

Slowly building alongside disquiet with aspects of industrialised food production in these media reports is a sense of unease in the project of science itself. Although many scientists attribute food scares to public ignorance, the BSE crisis clearly showed that when consumers found out more information about food production systems, they didn’t necessarily like the result.

Ambiguity and Consumption

As anthropologists, our response to this avalanche of media concern is to suggest that the fear of food poisoning, the spoilage of stored foods, and the hazards of ingesting new species are potential calamities that have always been with us. Recent media coverage of food scares is deceptive because it implies a prior and utopian period of food safety that, as we will show, has never existed.

Alongside disquiet about industrialised food production is unease with the project of science itself.

Considering human/food relations through the long anthropological lens, a couple of observations become apparent. First, food is a potent carrier of meaning in relation to ethnicity, inclusion, gender and power within groups. With respect to its double load of both nutritional and social value Lévi-Strauss (1970) has commented that food must not only be good to eat it must also be good to think with. Second, eating under any circumstances involves the incorporation of the not self into the self—an act which after a certain point becomes an irrevocable decision. Given the values attached to food, eating is both physically and culturally a rather risky business.

In other words food consumption is always ambiguous (see for example Beardsworth and Keil’s (1997: 152) discussion of this under the phrase ‘the omnivore’s paradox’). For example, eating creates anxiety around the concepts of pleasure and displeasure—a fresh apple can taste good, but a bruised and soft apple, once the skin is bitten through can taste horribly and unexpectedly bad. Second, there are the anxieties surrounding the fact that food can both provide nutrition (the sweet pulp of the rhubarb stalk), but also cause illness (the poisonous green leaves of the same plant). Finally, food evokes anxiety about life and death: we eat to live but our consumption automatically involves the death of those organisms which we consume (a sticking point for vegetarians and vegans, for example). Clearly, relationships between humans and food have always been ambiguous and uncertain. There was no utopia when food was unproblematically safe for humans; not in anthropological terms anyway.

The Industrial Revolution and Food

Moving from anthropology to history, there is further evidence of ambiguity in human/food relations. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, enormous changes in food supply accompanied the Industrial Revolution. The depopulation of the countryside and the urbanisation of the new working class established a new style of human/food relations: for the first time in history very large numbers of people became increasingly distant from sites of food production. While much historical attention has been given to the emergence of the ‘farmer’ in the capitalist division of labour, we suggest that one key result of industrialisation was the invention of the non-farmer, the non-peasant, the non-food producer. Burnett (1989), Tannahill (1988), Braudel (1973) and Wolf (1982) all describe how the British population became dependent on sources of food not only from outside the new cities, but also from outside Britain itself.

While the new food system led to a food supply and nutrition crisis in the cities, it also created new cultural and economic issues for food safety. In forcing the majority of the population to rely upon the uncertain honesty of ‘middle men’, a crisis of food adulteration emerged which Tannahill (1988) and Burnett (1989) reveal as the stuff of nightmares: brick dust in cocoa, alum in bread, cyanide in wine and vitriol in beer.

Thus, food safety and quality, and urbanisation have had a long, and as Burnett (1989: 216–239) describes it, a frequently unhappy history. Ironically, in terms of the contemporary concerns about experimental biology’s foray into GM food production, the tools of post-Enlightenment science helped to relieve the crisis in food adulteration associated with the Industrial Revolution. During the adulteration crisis, the work of scientists was understood to be the work of public saviours, as science laid the groundwork for the identification of contaminants and through this, the provision of a basis for the regulation of industrial food practices. Science/culture made food safe. Paradoxically, concerns for food safety were soon derived from the opposite. The increasing involvement of scientifically sanctioned technologies from irradiation to genetic modification is now the source of distrust. The scientist, in some quarters, has changed from cultural hero to villain.

Fraudulent and Dangerous: Case Studies of Industrial Foods

Eating is physically and culturally a rather risky business.

History clearly reveals that any contemporary ‘crisis’ of food safety has precedents a couple of centuries old. We argue that industrialisation of food production produced its own set of challenges for the cultural acceptance of food products. Case studies of margarine in the US (based on Ball and Lilly 1982) and irradiated food (described at length in CSAFE 2000) show that industrialisation began to break down the conceptual dualism of nature/culture in ways that had unsettling effects for food consumers.

Margarine was first commercially produced in the USA in 1875. It was quickly stigmatised as an unnatural and fraudulent substance, and came under the hostile attention of the US butter lobby. Legislation was enacted to prevent margarine being visually mistaken for butter. It was coloured bright pink in some states, and white in many others. The State of Missouri actually passed laws forbidding the manufacture, sale, and even the possession of margarine with intention to sell. Contemporary critics saw it as a demonic invention that attempted to ‘simulate’ the ‘real’ (read ‘natural’) product. It was also seen as food for the poor and its image suffered from close association with the beef industry in its early manufacture. Ball and Lilly (1982) observe that it took until the 1950s for margarine consumption to increase significantly inside the US. In other dairying nations like New Zealand, margarine wasn’t permitted on public sale until 1974.

Food irradiation is another notable food scare of the past century, involving a controversial technology and a product indistinguishable from conventional or untreated produce. The first patent for commercial food irradiation was taken out in 1905, but commercial scale use of the technology was delayed until after WW2 in the ‘Atoms for Peace’ project (Boisseau 1994). Its subsequent development by private business has been seriously delayed, because concerns about public acceptance of irradiation make commercial application a financially risky venture. While genetic modification of food has slightly displaced irradiation as a popular cause for concern, attempts to establish irradiation facilities are still met with strong local resistance (Ten Eyck 1999).

Genetically Modified Food in New Zealand

There are some intriguing similarities between these earlier food technology scares and the contemporary food scare around genetically modified food. Our analysis has been primarily informed by debate in New Zealand, which has just conducted a Royal Commission of Enquiry into GM, and experienced several years of debate on the issue from various interest groups, lobbyists, and politicians. The effect has been to compress into a microcosm the global contest over the safety and consequences of GM foods and to reveal the complexity of contemporary food scares in a media-saturated world. For example, resistance to genetic modification has become a meeting point for various political movements: environmental, anti-globalisation, consumer rights, and the cynically political ‘protection’ of the European farm sector against US food imports (Campbell and Fitzgerald, 2000). The particularly political character of the debate about genetic modification of foods has parallels in the political mobilisation of dairy interests around the margarine scare, and in the economic and environmental debates around the food irradiation scare.

In New Zealand and globally, genetic modification of food has stimulated an extremely high level of media activity over the last three years (Sivak et al. 2000). Certainly, media coverage of such high profile situations tends to become self-fulfilling prophecies, as pro- and anti-GM activists struggle to create more newsworthy forms of protest in order to saturate the global media with their particular points of view. Beardsworth (1990, 1995; Beardsworth and Keil, 1997) has described this tendency as a news spiral or amplification.

Organic and pesticide free food provides a safe haven for the ambivalent and frightened consumer.

However as a sole explanation of media coverage, it places too much emphasis on the media and not enough on other networkers and disseminators of information about food, health and safety that also influence the media coverage profoundly (see Macintyre et al 1998). The Royal Commission on Genetic Modification has clearly demonstrated that fears and ‘intuitive dis-ease’ (Interchurch Commission on Genetic Engineering 2000) over GM cannot be understood merely as a media-generated spiral of concern.

Contemporary concerns about GM are comparable with historical food technology scares those surrounding margarine and food irradiation. In all these scares, contested technologies dis-ordered a central principle of familiarity and safety in Western culture in relation to a highly potent symbolic substance—food. This principle is the foundation for dividing the world into what is ‘natural’ and what is human made (ie ‘cultural’). In all these scares, and particularly the GM scare, such blurring of nature/culture has been met by the mobilisation of knowledges that nostalgically attempted to recreate these cultural divisions by labelling, regulation, or outright banning of the product. If only it could be coloured pink! In all the scares, there is a sense that the new technology is loathed as ‘unnatural’, or understood as a product of culture/science which has failed to produce the desired modernist pay off.

In the case of genetically modified food in particular, the apparent inability to tell easily (using conventional means) the industrialised product from the reified ‘natural’ one has produced two strongly nostalgic responses. In one direction we reinvent the traditional idea of ‘nature’ in which organic and pesticide free food provides a safe haven for the ambivalent and frightened consumer. In the other direction we promote the central Enlightenment myth of progress: ‘GM food to help feed the world’, ‘GM science will prosper us all’. This latter view was the conclusion drawn by the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification in New Zealand. The heated reaction to this conclusion provides evidence that such a sentiment provides as little comfort for food crises of nature/culture in contemporary society as it did in the late nineteenth century.


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Ruth Fitzgerald is a lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Otago, New Zealand. Her research interests include food, risk, embodiment and contemporary ideologies of health. Hugh Campbell is senior lecturer in social anthropology and director of the Centre for the Study of Agriculture Food and Environment (CSAFE) in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Otago. His research interests include the sociology of food and agriculture, and he has participated in and researched the Royal Commission on GM in New Zealand. This is a jointly authored paper.

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