Consumers blamed for food scandals

Although consumers say they are bothered by mass food production, they pay more attention to the price Keystone

Dioxin in food, mad cow disease, fish loaded with listeria – despite a litany of food scandals, agricultural policy is not going to change, an expert tells

This content was published on January 17, 2011 - 13:41
Alexander Kuenzle,

Stefan Mann, a researcher at the Agroscope research institute, which is attached to the Federal Agriculture Office, expects further food scandals, which in his view are caused primarily by the attitudes of consumers.

Despite claiming in surveys to be uncomfortable with the anonymous mass production of food, consumers, according to Mann, are chiefly led by price.

The German government recently announced a plan to enforce higher standards in animal feed production after the discovery of the toxic chemical dioxin in feed, which has triggered a health alert and hit sales of German eggs and pork (see box). Where does the problem lie?

Stefan Mann: In consumers’ ambivalence. On the one hand agricultural production is very anonymous and orientated towards efficiency. On the other, the media and consumers create increasingly big scandals out of comparatively small dangers and trigger general hysteria.

Ten years ago a survey in Germany asked people what was more dangerous for humans: BSE [mad cow disease] or smoking. Both were considered equally dangerous. This ignores the fact that smoking has been proven to kill hundreds of thousands of people every year, while the consequences of BSE are still largely unknown. How many more scandals are necessary before anonymous mass production is stopped?

S.M.: So long as our generation is alive, there won’t be any fundamental changes made to how food is produced and distributed. But I don’t consider this a major problem. What is produced in Switzerland isn’t all bad. Wouldn’t the solution be to use produce “from the region”? One could then at least check where the food came from.

S.M.: That’s nostalgic thinking from a time when Switzerland was surrounded by the enemy during the Second World War and had to become self-sufficient regarding food.

You’ve got to remember though that in those days Switzerland had a million fewer mouths to feed. Today, considering just vegetables, it’s no longer possible to organise a regionalised production. Does the lack of alternatives mean the free trade of agricultural products can’t be avoided?

S.M.: It doesn’t have to be just free trade – it can also be international trade with tariffs for local farms. If we really had unprotected free trade in Switzerland, hardly a single vegetable would be grown here, which would be a shame.

Local production currently enjoys a certain level of protection, but nevertheless we can provide for our food from abroad. This combination is not a fundamentally wrong path. One could go a step further and ask whether Switzerland shouldn’t become a completely organic country...

S.M.: In that case the government would instruct every Swiss farmer to grow organic. But one of the consequences of this – scarcely intended by many supporters of organic production – is that agricultural trade would be intensified even more.

Since we would then export more organic products, we’d correspondingly have to import more conventional products. There will always be a sizeable segment of society who are not prepared to pay more for their food than necessary. They attach hardly any value to food quality and prefer to spend their money on other things. The agricultural sector comprises on the one hand heavy subsidies and on the other tough competition. Isn’t this a contradiction?

S.M.: Regarding subsidies, you’ve got to make a difference between the European Union and Switzerland. In EU countries, payments sprayed out per farmed hectare constitute the largest chunk of the billion-heavy agricultural budget.

In Switzerland, one tries, with the direct payment system, to only let the state pay for that which benefits society – for example contributions to biodiversity or landscape quality. I wouldn’t call that subsidising. That is rather an attempt to implement a multifunctional agriculture, which shouldn’t only manufacture food as economically as possible, but also pay regard to the cleanliness of forests, water and the air. The diversity of species and farming should be considered.

However, this system – in Switzerland as in the rest of Europe – comes with heavy cost pressures. Retailers are then judged by consumers depending on how cheaply they can offer food. And that’s hardly going to change. To what extent are discount stores to blame for this trend towards cheap food?

S.M.: Discount stores aren’t the only ones that are lowering their prices. Migros and Coop [Switzerland’s two largest supermarket chains] have both exerted a lot of cost pressure on producers.

The biggest retailers are focusing a lot more on price than even a decade ago. But consumers pay a lot of attention to the price and will often head towards the cheapest discounter or even nip across the border to find even cheaper bargains.

Ultimately the blame falls on consumers. It’s become almost a law that every few years there’s a food scandal. I’ve been expecting the current dioxin scandal to happen for a long time.

Germany scandal

German and European Union authorities are struggling to contain the health alert which began on January 3 when German officials said feed tainted with dioxin had been fed to hens and pigs, contaminating eggs, poultry meat and some pork at the affected farms.

On Saturday authorities banned another 934 farms from selling eggs, poultry and pork after finding out that one company had hidden its deliveries of possibly contaminated livestock feed.

Prosecutors in Lower Saxony state opened an investigation and police searched several of the feed producer’s offices, Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said.

Lower Saxony's agriculture ministry said products from those farms have likely been sold over the past ten days, “mostly eggs”. But it reiterated its assessment that “consumption of these goods does not pose a health risk” given the low contamination level.

The scandal broke last week when investigators found excessive levels of dioxin in eggs and chickens, leading authorities to slaughter hundreds of animals and freeze sales from more than 5,000 farms. Excessive dioxin levels were also found in some pork.

As of Friday, all but 400 farms had been cleared and allowed to resume selling their products, but South Korea and China kept their bans on imports of German pork and poultry.

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Dioxins are a group of chemicals known to increase the likelihood of cancer. An unwanted byproduct, they are formed when heating processes create certain chemicals.

Dioxins exist everywhere - they are present in the atmosphere, soil, rivers and the food chain.

Most concerns now lie with the potential of dioxins to cause cancer, but they are also suspected of affecting reproductive health, lowering sperm counts, causing behavioural problems and increasing the incidence of diabetes.

In living organisms, toxins reside in fat. This means they can persist in the food chain through a process called bioaccumulation.

They are mainly found in meat and dairy produce, but are also found in poultry, fish and on unwashed fruit and vegetables.

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