We have to eat, right? : food safety concerns and shopping for daily vegetables in modernizing Vietnam

Research output: Thesisinternal PhD, WU

Abstract

This thesis analyses how people during everyday life confront real food safety risks that are difficult to influence and come to grips with and focuses on food safety risks in modernizing Vietnam.

Over the past 40 years Vietnam has developed from war torn country with a highly centralized planned economy ranking among the world’s most impoverished nations to a socialist-oriented market economic power house, currently ranking highest among the world’s largest growth economies. Throughout this transition Vietnam has struggled with food security in which concerns have shifted from ‘is there enough to eat?’ to ‘is it safe to eat?’. Food safety has become a major social and political issue in Vietnam. Urbanization puts pressure on the provision of daily fresh food. The distanciation of production-consumption relationships and the intensification of cultivation methods, as a response to growing urban demand with a declining farmland acreage, results in regular food safety incidents related to the inappropriate use of chemicals in agricultural production. The wide media coverage of such incidences has resulted in food safety being the ‘number one consumer concern’ in Vietnam.

To improve food safety and to restore trust among consumers, authorities in Vietnam, as in other parts of Asia, promulgate policies that focus on the modernization of the food retail system. Western models of consumption and retailing strongly influence these retail modernization policies, placing supermarket development at the core of strategies. The retail modernization policies are designed to influence choices and persuade consumers to change their behavior based on the idea that consumers make rational choices, assuming that food safety concerns will drive consumers into supermarket channels. However, despite consumer food safety concerns, in the performance of everyday life, consumers don’t ‘en masse’ adopt the policy enabled risk-reducing alternative of supermarkets. Traditional channels such as wet markets continue to dominate in the daily fresh vegetable purchasing practices. This phenomenon is observed across the Asian continent. As it turns out, transitions in the food buying practices of Asian consumers are not so easily established.

This thesis addresses consumption as a social practice. The application of social practice based approaches to the analysis of consumption started around the turn of the century and has since gained importance in thinking about food system changes with a strong focus on western developed societies. By applying the research on the specific case of shopping for vegetables in Vietnam, this thesis exemplifies how a social practices approach is relevant beyond OECD countries. In studying the relation and dynamics between local cultural tradition and advanced globalization at the consumption junction, this thesis uncovers how practices of shopping for vegetables and their inherent food safety dynamics emerge, evolve, or die out within the rapidly transforming urban context of Hanoi, Vietnam. This thesis is concerned with the question:

How do ordinary people in Vietnam confront food safety risks and why and how they do, or do not adopt alternative practices, like modern retail shopping, to respond to their increasing concerns about the fresh-food made available to them?

The conducted research and its findings are described in this thesis over six chapters. It starts with an introductory chapter 1, followed by four distinct, though coherent, empirical research chapters (chapter 2-5). Each of these chapters delivers a complementary understanding on the everyday practice of shopping for vegetables in the transformative context of Vietnam. Combined these empirical research chapters provide an understanding of how practices of shopping for vegetables develop, are sustained and/or die out within a rapidly transforming urban context. The thesis ends with a concluding chapter 6.

The first chapter describes the research problem, the theoretical framing of the problem and the research questions. The chapter explicates why this thesis takes a social practices theory based research approach. Exploring the middle ground of two interlinked debates - a debate with extreme positions in retail development and a debate on how to bring about behavioral change, - it is discussed that a social practices approach is relevant for obtaining understandings of everyday life, because of its non-individualist perspective, its empirical focus on habitual activity, and its inclusion of the local context. Next, the chapter outlines the conceptual approach in which relations between provision systems on the one hand and consumers on the other are mediated at the food retailing sites. By giving primacy to neither agency nor structure, it is discussed how practices based research, might deliver an understanding of the relation and dynamics between local cultural tradition and advanced globalisation. It than elaborates on the novel programmatic methodological approach of shifting perspectives - zooming in on situated practices and zooming out through a historical mapping of a portfolio of embedded practices - that allow the detection of the dynamics in situated habitual and contextually constrained activities, as well as longer term transformations of practices over time. Chapter 1 concludes with an exposition of the mix of methods applied.

Chapter 2 investigates which characteristics of the dominant and persistent practice of shopping at wet markets account for its continued reproduction and addresses the question of how food safety concerns are confronted within this well–established practice. Taking a rural city not yet touched by retail modernization as the research setting, this chapter presents in-depth empirical research insights on interactions at wet-market from the perspective of both sales persons and citizen-consumers. This chapter shows that food safety is a well-recognized dilemma by both providers and consumers of vegetables, but that food safety concerns are not the principal factor in determining the purchasing practices. Shopping at wet markets is a highly routinized taken for granted activity and food safety concerns only become prominent within this habitual shopping setting. Deploying specific heuristics for vendor and product selection, food safety is shown to be continuously reproduced along pre-given lines. As long as the existing, ‘practical’ repertoire of food safety heuristics deployed by consumers suffices in counter balancing their anxieties, consumers adhere to their established food shopping routines of shopping at wet markets.

Chapter 3 explores the persistence of shopping for vegetables at informal, uncontrolled, and unhygienic street markets in the context of advancing retail modernization in urban Hanoi. Government induced policies aim at replacing wet markets by supermarkets and therewith enforce breaks with well-established routines. However, although supermarkets are recognized and valued as safe vegetable retailing sites, they are only marginally successful in attracting daily vegetables consumers. This chapter addresses the question of what context specific processes and circumstances account for the continued reproduction of shopping at street markets that do not offer formal food safety guarantees. The empirical study of vegetable shopping practices at six different street markets, reveals how consumers handle food safety concerns in combination with other choices about where and when to buy. It shows how and why daily routines are time-spatial constrained. Where and how to buy vegetables is importantly shaped by other activities in daily life. The empirical research illustrates that temporal and spatial dimensions of practices in contemporary daily life in Hanoi constitute a reinforcing mechanism for the persistence of uncontrolled and unhygienic street markets, rather than the uptake of supermarkets. This chapter points out that food safety policies and interventions that do not take into consideration the existing everyday consumption practices, might fail to address acute food safety issues.

Chapter 4 assesses the extent of the outreach of modernized retail formats in terms of who benefits, who is excluded and what context specific processes and circumstances influence the uptake of modified or modern retail formats by different social groups. A practice realist perspective is demonstrated to be relevant for addressing outreach and social inclusion and understanding how policy interventions play out in practice. On the basis of a collective case study of six distinct policy induced retail modernization interventions, this chapter illustrates the emerging and on-going process of food retail transformation. This approach exposes how and why similar supermarket interventions can yield contrasting intermediate outcomes when they do not accommodate for differences in shopper population and do not adapt to variations in the urban conditions. The current one-dimensional, supermarket oriented, retail modernization policy that aims to reduce the exposure to uncertified ‘unsafe’ food, is shown to lead to the exclusion of a large proportion of the population. This chapter points out the importance for Vietnamese policymakers to consider the risk of social deprivation and to explicitly reflect on the unanticipated consequences of the normative direction of their interventions in food provision. This chapter indicates that reaching a more diverse population requires more flexible policies that allow for malleability in response to local conditions.

Chapter 5 addresses the questions: what practices of purchasing or appropriating fresh vegetables do exist in contemporary Vietnam; how do they relate to food safety concerns and dynamics; why did they emerge and evolve during the past 40 years; and what factors are important in explaining the dynamics of change in the overall set of shopping practices? Deploying a practice historical perspective, this chapter unravels the complex evolving relationships between the local and the global as they can be read from the ways in which Vietnamese consumers deal with food safety risks when shopping for fresh food, by analyzing a portfolio of shopping practices against the background of historical changes over the period 1975-2015. Discussing the way in which six situated social practices are embedded in the broader set of food appropriation practices, this chapter portrays how practices show consistency in change over time, influenced by transformations in their environment, in which practices are interrelated with other practices in daily life beyond the act of shopping for food and beyond the domain of food. Further this chapter demonstrates how food safety related trust mechanisms as deployed by Vietnamese consumers show patterns of hybridization of personalized trust with abstract guidance systems. The historical approach provides insights on why shopping at supermarkets is not just currently still limited in recruiting practitioners. Also looking forward, it is not reasonable to expect homogenization in food retail system transformation.

This thesis concludes with chapter 6 which addresses the question of what lessons can be learned from social practices research in assessing the present and future role of supermarkets and the accompanying food safety strategies, which imply the de- and re-routinization of well-established contemporary practices of shopping for fresh-food. Along the four empirical research chapters, it first sets out to answer the research questions. Next it elaborates on the theoretical and methodological approach. The chapter describes the iterative research process and depicts how methodological variance can be used as a  strength when applied as an intelligible program of shifting perspectives - zooming in and out on practices - and a mix of methods. It is pointed out that although practices based approaches are criticized on their complexity and ambiguity, the approach used in this thesis is proven to deliver concrete results and might be useful in similar cases. Lastly, this concluding chapter discusses how practices based perspectives have the potential to inform a more versatile and amenable portfolio of public regulations and resources when striving for amelioration in food provision, not only in Vietnam, but across the Asian continent.

This thesis demonstrates how changes in infrastructures are not sufficient for changing practices and thus warns against making food safety policies strongly dependent on a single supermarket model. Instead of putting all strategic resources on one strategy, efforts of integration and mutual adaptation of modern and traditional structures could be considered. Pursuing a trend of hybridization prevents that consumers have to break with long established routines in an isolated, radical way.

 

Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Wageningen University
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Spaargaren, Gert, Promotor
Award date20 Nov 2015
Place of PublicationWageningen
Publisher
Print ISBNs9789462575745
Publication statusPublished - 2015

Keywords

  • food safety
  • food quality
  • vegetables
  • consumers
  • consumption patterns
  • consumption
  • environmental policy
  • vietnam
  • south east asia

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