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date: 21 October 2017

Risks and Food Safety in a Global Economy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Environmental Science. Please check back later for the full article.

In recent years, a number of food safety incidents in Europe and East Asia have led to concerns about threats to the environment and human health. In this context, the significance of a re-evaluation of risks with regards to food safety is essential, which includes re-visiting Western risk theories advanced by Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens. The dimensions of risks and food safety are four-fold.

First, major incidents, such as the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011 and the melamine crisis in China in 2008, have impacted the perception of food safety among consumers. These incidents led to fears of an increase of food safety incidents and to a collapse of trust in established brand products and technologies in post-industrial societies. It is necessary, therefore, to re-assess the risks of utilizing future-oriented technologies and mass food production systems.

Second, the use of genetically modified organisms in food products and the consumption of food additives have produced new food-related risks. This underlines the significance of risk assessment, in particular, as “reflexive modernization” requires individuals to familiarize themselves with new and possibly harmful food technologies and to assess, manage, and avoid risks on their own responsibility and on a highly personalized basis.

Third, various food-related incidents, such as the case of imported poisoned dumplings in Japan in 2008, have triggered the emergence of civil engagement in the form of consumer education initiatives. Both governmental and non-governmental initiatives stress the significance of locality, providence, and food heritage preservation as a way to ensure and maintain food safety and balanced nutritional habits. In other words, the notion of locality is linked to the desire to minimize the risk.

Fourth, poor individual eating habits, as self-imposed risks, have attracted scholarly attention. Food education initiatives in European and Asian nations seek to strengthen the culinary competence of individuals and embrace national staple foods and local food specialties at the same time. Efforts to provide adequate information about nutrition and to counter the rise of health conditions such as obesity and diabetes often coincide with a return to conservative gender perceptions and family values. This calls for new forms of culinary education that take the demands of working parents, individualized work schedules, and dining outside the home into consideration.