Food Quality, Safety and Trust since 1950: Societal Controversy and Biotechnological Challenges

Food Quality, Safety and Trust since 1950:Societal Controversy and Biotechnological Challenges.

Filip Degreef

Academic research of food safety and quality has seen a rise in popularity due to food scares of the late 1990s.  Studies within social sciences focused on the changes in consumer trust after large food fears such as the BSE scandal and the dioxin crisis. The preceding years were seen within a framework of sudden changes compared to the more recent issues regarding food safety/quality. Yet, historical research shows that food fears have always been present.

This project focuses on the years leading up to these ‘new’ food scandals using a more long-term framework to interpret changes in representation of food safety and food quality and consumer trust. The nature of shopping for everyday food changed drastically throughout the second half of the 20th century. Supermarkets took over Western-European retail structures and became the most important place of shopping for food (with up to 90 % of total food sales). This drastically changed the foundations of trust. Whilst small-scale counter shops used personal contacts to instigate bonds of trust, the nature of supermarkets forced these to use a faceless brand to make contact with the customer. Trust in people needed to change to confidence in an institutional system. A strong and trustworthy brand identity, whether this was the chain or the supermarket as a concept, was needed to assure a constant flow of customers. The central focus of this study will be on the way these large-scale retailers formed bonds of trust with the consumers in Belgium.

The nature of supply chains also drastically altered throughout the period under research. The lengthening of the food chains, lack of visibility and increased food processing alienated consumers from what they could purchase. As the most important point of contact with this chain, supermarkets are in the midst of the storm. Their actions, norms and standards became a focal point for consumers view on food safety and quality.

The research has two mayor approaches. The first is a quantitative one. Belgian newspapers, advertisements for food and the publications of consumer organizations are studied to understand which discourses around food safety/quality were present at which time. These results are then compared to the actions/ accessible archives and publications of the major retailers. These are studied in a qualitative manner to understand different topics and discourses that were important within the retailers’ strategic decisions concerning food safety and quality.