Food risks and consumer trust : European governance of Avian influenza

M.P.M.M. de Krom

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU


During the 1990s, many European countries faced one or more food crises, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), E. coli, dioxin residues, and foot-and-mouth disease. These crises were marked by a growing public recognition of food-related risks and the changing nature of these risks, and tended to undermine citizen-consumer trust in the practices and institutions that managed food safety. To restore and retain trust in food throughout Europe, the European food policy framework was substantially renewed at the turn of the century. Conventional food governance was the domain of scientific experts, state agents and actors higher in the food supply chain, who decided on policy measures based on scientific data, and subsequently conveyed them to the general public. In the renewed framework for governing food, other social actors, including (individual and organised) citizen-consumers, were to be more actively involved through innovative roles.
While this innovative position for citizen-consumers represents a definite discursive shift, it remains rather elusive how citizen-consumers should be included in food risk governance practices, and what effects such inclusion has on consumer trust. This study aims to further the understanding of whether and how citizen-consumer involvement in European food risk governance (re)establishes trust in the handling of food risks. It investigates consumer involvement within the conventional policy institutions (at the EU and Member State levels), as well as outside of these institutions (at shopping floors and in mass-media). The study focuses empirically on a major risk to Europe that emerged after the renewed policy framework had largely been implemented: highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1.
In August 2005, this avian influenza virus strain entered European public arenas as the next food and agricultural risk. As the virus was detected close to Europe, questions arose whether measures were required to protect human health and secure European food supply. Chapter 2 analyses the public debates on the characteristics of the risk and on the interventions needed. The mass media in two EU Member States, the UK and the Netherlands, were studied for this purpose. With the help of qualitative analysis the debates were analysed as they unfolded in selected national newspapers. Arguing that risks are socially mediated realities, this chapter discusses how struggles on risk definitions relate to different policy decisions. Moreover, it analyses how these political dynamics are informed by the involvement of state, market, science, and civil society actors, and discerns their implications for the functioning of the EU food governance framework.
Chapter 3 explores consumer perspectives on food safety governance by expounding the results of an explorative study among Dutch consumers. Moving away from the ‘knowledge deficit’ model, which entails that consumers should be better educated to avoid ‘irrational’ responses, we investigate what consumers consider at the place and time they actually have to deal with food risks. To give ample room for the construction of contextual knowledge, consumers of poultry meat were questioned at various retailers by applying a qualitative interviewing method. From this research, it is concluded that multiple consumer rationalities about food safety governance exist. As a consequence of the existence of these multiple consumer rationalities, a differentiated governance approach to restore or retain consumer confidence is more likely to be pertinent than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
Chapter 4 starts from the observation that, irrespective of the major food crises that occurred during the 2000s, consumer trust in food seems to remain high in Western Europe. Information provision to consumers on food risks is a central strategy of the EU, its Member States and private food providers to build food trust among consumers. But can the interpretation of such information by consumers explain these high levels of trust? Following recent outbreaks of avian influenza in the UK, this paper investigates the constitution of food trust among UK poultry consumers by focusing on the place where relevant consumer decisions are made: the shopping floor. In-store qualitative interviews with consumers of a variety of poultry products at different shops are used to reveal the role of information in constructing trust. It is concluded that besides on knowledge inducted from information provided, trust depends as much on consumer strategies to handle non-knowing of food risks. Three main forms of trust relations are distinguished, which together result in high levels of consumer trust at a system level.
Chapter 5 studies the institutional incorporation of social interests and values in EU and Member State food risk governance. The study is based on qualitative analyses of key official publications and press releases from Member State and EU level bodies, as well as from scientists, NGOs and food supply chain actors. These analyses are combined with 40 in-depth interviews with relevant food system actors. The chapter reviews how and which social interests and values are incorporated in food risk governance in the Netherlands, France and the UK, and at the EU level. It concludes that predominantly through state-level political (and to a lesser extent: scientific) domains social interests and values were articulated on the EU agenda, while at the EU level food risk governance remained principally justified on the basis of scientific evidence. The chapter finishes with discerning the effects of this inclusion of social interest and values on public trust and the functioning of the internal market.
The sixth and final chapter draws conclusions on the changing positions of, and relations between, scientists, policy makers, market actors and citizen-consumers. First, while natural scientists have lost their position as the a priori trustworthy source of risk information, they still maintain a central position in legitimating risk definitions. Yet, in this position scientists have become more transparent than in the past concerning their internal disagreements, and are (more overtly) incorporating wider social, economic and political arguments in their policy advice. Herewith, these scientists become more susceptible to public contestation, and risk assessment opens up for non-scientific actors aiming to publicly legitimate their own perspectives. In essence, this changing public character of risk assessments entails the conflation of two previously segregated risk governance phases: those of risk assessment and communication. With such communication, citizen-consumers are ‘invited’ or even ‘forced’ to conduct micro-level assessments and judgements of conflicting risk characterisations.
Second, due to the dissolution of science as the uncontested source of risk characterisation, risk managers can no longer assume that they can legitimate their decisions by referring to scientific risk assessments, and the cost-benefit analyses based on them. Instead, policy makers are urged to base decisions also (more explicitly) on wider social interests and values and legitimate their handling of risks in view of scientific non-knowing. This is especially the case when risk knowledge bases are subject to public contestation, and when wider social perspectives on the appropriateness of different risk governance options diverge. In such situations, different risk perspectives may become dominant in different countries, as risks are mediated through different culturally-embedded and socially contextualised sense-making frames. Due to this differentiation, European Member States (re-)emerge as pivotal governance actors: while EU level food risk governance remains grounded in scientific-rational and technically-based justification which safeguards a minimum level of European policy harmonisation, more room has to be opened for the Member States to incorporate country-specific social interests and values in their decisions.
Third, the possibilities for Member States to differentiate from a harmonised European food risk governance arrangement entailed increased room for private actors to become—legitimately—involved. By refusing to retail products whose characteristics were co-determined by Member State-specific measures, supermarkets became strongly involved in food risk governance—and were decisive in the success of such measures. Supermarkets legitimated their involvement with the argument of retaining their consumers’ trust in food.
Fourth, citizen-consumers take on roles as micro-level assessors of conflicting risk characterisations, which ‘materialises’ in consumers’ co-governance of food risks through their consumption practices. With such consumer co-governance, consumption turns political, marking a partial shift of risk management practices towards places where consumers stand in ‘direct’ relation to the risk governors in the food supply and management systems: the shopping floors. On shopping floors, consumers differ in their perspectives on risks and on how to govern these. Hence, providing room for Member State-based differentiation in risk management does not necessarily mean one addresses all consumer rationalities, as for groups of consumers such management decisions may lack congruence with their perspectives and concerns.
Moreover, political and policy institutions encounter difficulties to address in their risk management decisions the socio-contextual embeddedness of consumers, consumption practices and trust. Significant groups of consumers do not regard themselves merely as passive recipients of food products, information flows and governance outcomes. They are self-defined co-governors of the safety of food through their acts of buying food and relating to the relevant actor networks. Within these relations and co-constructions consumer trust is being built. As such, European and national policy institutions may contribute to the make-up of the constraining and enabling environment of the shopping floor, but these institutions cannot fully construct and determine consumer trust.
Hence, we observed an increased involvement of (interests and values of) citizen-consumer in institutional risk assessment and management practices—particularly through Member State-level political domains. At the same time, risk assessment and management dynamics shift for an important part to contexts and practices outside of conventional, political and policy institutions: to the mass-media and shopping floors. Besides policy challenges, these dynamics entail opportunities for improving the European food risk governance process, which are set out in policy recommendations for different groups of governance actors. The study finishes with making some recommendations for further research.

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
  • Mol, Arthur, Promotor
  • Oosterveer, Peter, Co-promotor
Award date8 Sep 2010
Place of Publication[S.l.]
Print ISBNs9789085856986
Publication statusPublished - 2010


  • food safety
  • avian influenza viruses
  • consumer behaviour
  • europe
  • risk management


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