Fipronil, a compound hitherto unknown outside veterinary circles, is in our food: specifically, eggs and egg-based products.
While the degree of health risk this poses is contested (for example, The Food Standards Agency maintains that this is a regulatory issue rather than a threat to public health), one thing generally agreed upon is which nation to blame, namely the Netherlands.
This summer the UK media have named and shamed with headlines such as ‘Dutch egg scandal hits 17 nations around the world’. For a risk researcher, the prominence of a ‘country of origin’ in the reporting of food scares is remarkable for its consistency. Provenance is clearly important but why does it feature quite so prominently given all the other important information consumers require to navigate risk, for example, how serious is the risk?
‘Food scares’, a generic term also prevalent in this particular food contamination episode, routinely and prominently attach blame to other countries. In 2011 an E.coli outbreak that killed over 50 people, mainly in Germany, was initially prominently attributed in the media to Spanish killer cucumbers, an attribution that later proved to be false as the harmful bacteria was traced to home-grown German beansprouts.
Foreigners as culprits or scapegoats
The consequences of hasty finger-pointing can be severe. For Spanish cucumber growers the knee-jerk boycott led to a collapse in the market and farmers across the EU suffering losses in the region of €400m. An equivalent outbreak of international finger-pointing saw Ireland accused in the infamous horse-meat lasagne scandal of 2012. This improper use of equine ingredients eventually revealed a more complex web of guilt with miscreants inside France, Sweden, Poland, Romania, Belgium, Luxemburg and the UK successfully prosecuted for malpractice.
Identifying foreigners as culprits or scapegoats is clearly something of a pattern when it comes to food scares but contaminations and diseases of all kinds are equally likely to be seen as emanating from an external source. The most infamous example is perhaps the so-called Spanish Flu of 1918. Millions perished in the global pandemic as a highly pathogenic and virulent strain of avian influenza could not be contained.
Modern advances in virology suggest that the source of the outbreak was more likely to have been North America than the Iberian Peninsula, which goes to show that our predilection for ‘countries of origin’ labelling of pathogens certainly predates current concerns with eggs. This is not to say that the Netherlands is wrongly implicated in the current crisis or that identifying the source of a risk is a bad thing. Rather, what is remarkable is that out of all the potentially interesting features of pathogenic risk, including the nature of the risk, country of origin appears as the most salient feature again and again.
A form of quarantine
So why is the nationality of the risk such a headline grabber particularly given that mistaken identity seems commonplace once the proper investigations have been conducted? To understand this rapid resort to naming and shaming nation states whenever food scares erupt we can turn to social theories of risk.
One idea is that the provenance of food, and in this case the provenance of unsafe food, is used as a risk management strategy. To know where our food comes from is a form of assurance. We even refer to provenance labelling such as the Red Tractor as ‘food assurance schemes’. Red Tractor claims that its British provenance labelling ‘ensures a trustworthy source’. Ergo because it is British we can trust it more. By implication, Dutch eggs, Irish meat processors and Spanish cucumbers, lack such assurances. In other words national provenance is used as a form of risk management.
Furthermore, once a food risk is identified as having a particular provenance it can be managed. We can draw a boundary around the risk and control it. Risk management often proceeds by isolating a risk. The idea of quarantine (from the Italian quaranta giorni meaning 40 days) is precisely this. Ships arriving in the port of Dubrovnik in the fourteenth century, potentially carrying the Black Death, were isolated for ‘forty days’ and required to display a yellow and black squared flag before being allowed to unload their cargo. In the case of terrestrial epidemics an exclusion zone is often enforced.
Consider the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreaks of 2001 during which swathes of the British countryside were placed under a form of quarantine in order to contain a disease that threatened the livestock industry. In a similar way the isolation of a risk-ridden nation during a ‘food scare’ is a form of quarantine. We will create a defence against a risk by isolating it and preventing suspect imports from entering our country. Drawing a physical boundary around the risk allows us to continue eating eggs, cucumbers, lasagne or indeed chocolates (in 1999 the discovery of dioxin in Belgian chocolates caused a collapse in sales).
Pointing the finger
As a risk management strategy there is a clear logic. However, in our media-saturated societies attributing provenance to dangers is rarely the result of painstaking epidemiological investigation but instead tends to hit upon the first suspect. The identification of a foreign country as being the source of the risk often seems to precede even the most basic consideration of the severity of the risk – ‘how risky are affected eggs?’
It is widely supposed that the media is largely responsible for the failures of effective risk management during such episodes. The media, it is argued, ‘amplifies’ public concern by increasing the signal strength of risk messages. Holland, media critics might argue, is getting a bad press. Social Attribution of Risk Amplification (SARA) explains this feature of food scares at a more sociological level. [See HERE]
Repeatedly pointing the finger at an outsider can be driven by interests beyond public health protection. Damaging a competitor’s trade can be advantageous. During the BSE crisis, when Britain found itself on the receiving end of ‘provenance-based risk management’, the suspicion that competitor self-interest was behind prolonged support for a ban on our beef exports, particularly by the French, was widely articulated by British commentators.
The current egg crisis can be similarly framed as promoting certain interests both in terms of domestic egg markets and wider Brexit negotiations. A recent headline asserts ‘Poison egg backlash: One in three shoppers refusing to eat foreign eggs’. In other words, the fault originates not with the media per se but with multiple agents pursuing varied interests and a whole range of diverse interests can coalesce around ‘country of origin’ risk attribution.
These interests may be grounded in an unsavoury appetite for profit or xenophobic undercurrents in society. But equally a food standards regulator may be pursuing a precautionary principle in the public interest. Hamburg’s state health minister, Cornelia Prüfer-Storcks, the first official to point the finger at Spain during the cucumber debacle, claimed, “It would have been irresponsible to withhold a well-founded suspicion given the high number of illnesses.” Spain’s agriculture minister, Rosa Aguilar, did not agree.
Risk and blame
It is also important to remember that during a crisis the full facts are rarely known and it is often only after careful digestion that we can see how reporting may have missed the complexity of failures in globalised food systems in its haste to point fingers. Ulrich Beck warns us of new forms of risk that are manufactured in the interconnected processes of our industrialised world. With an astonishing six billion eggs sold annually in the UK, is it any wonder that risk management is imperfect and that the expedient of blunt-edged approaches can be appealing?
What Beck argues, in his ground-breaking work, Risk Society, is that manufactured risks are inherent within modernity due to its totalising and interrelated technological conditions. With globalisation, these risks affect all countries and all social classes. Whenever a new food scare materialises, rather than ‘which country did it originate in?’ Risk Society inspired thinking might ask ‘how far does this go?’ or more generally ‘how bad is it?’
And yet there may be more to our xenophobic finger-pointing than simply trading attributions in the pursuit of private interest, imposing unofficial quarantines or even reflecting on our globalised food systems. Mary Douglas, a pioneering anthropologist, equates the social construction of risk, particularly risks associated with food, with fundamental processes of social formation. For Douglas it is around the defining and sharing of common ideas about risk that societal inclusion and exclusion are determined. Those outside our group do not share our food values or practices and therefore constitute a danger to us. Her Cultural Theory of Risk perhaps shows that our systematic finger-pointing at foreigners may well tell us something about who we think we are.
This article was first published on the Social, Economical and Geographical Sciences blog of the James Hutton Institute, views expressed are those of the author.