Perspectives on food safety: A review of ethnographic studies


Central to addressing the global problem of foodborne disease is understanding the beliefs, values, and motivations of both consumers and value chain actors vis-à-vis food safety. While quantitative, survey-based research on food safety perceptions is widespread, such techniques may not be ideal for examining sensitive and complex topics like beliefs and values. In contrast, the qualitative research techniques used in ethnography and similar disciplines (such as in-depth interviews, observations, or shadowing) have been designed to examine topics such as emotions, values, and cultural context in depth. While they have not been widely deployed within food safety research, it is expected that they could yield many useful insights for the design of better food safety research and programming, including for the EatSafe project.

This report is intended to contribute to the work of EatSafe by bringing knowledge from ethnographic and other relevant social sciences sources to inform the design of its intervention and evaluation. As such, this review examines prior research on food safety-related topics using ethnographic and related methods, then uses the results to glean insights for the design of EatSafe research and intervention activities. By amassing a range of prior focused ethnographic studies on food and nutrition topics and undertaking a targeted search for other studies using similar methods to examine the topic of food safety, reviewers identified a total of 35 relevant studies. Reviewing the studies’ main results and conclusions allowed us to highlight a set of key recurrent themes, with clear implications for future research and intervention design. The review made clear that consumers have strategies to mitigate food safety risk, but these strategies are not equally available to everyone in a population. Similarly, gender is a fundamental determinant of food safety beliefs and behaviours, including differential risk. Third, informal food markets are just one source of risk among many faced by consumers. Fourth, new messaging (on food safety and other topics) is perceived and evaluated in concert with other information circulating in the social and media environment.

Promisingly, the review indicates that there are specific circumstances in which individual agency is expanded and food safety-promoting behaviours can be more readily adopted. It also suggests that vendors may face personal or business-related risks in situations involving food safety, which could provide incentives for them to act. Finally, the review confirms that ethnographic methods are well-suited to examining the topic of food safety perceptions and that the resulting data may be valuable if the investigation is focused on specific foods. Based on these results, EatSafe will aim to: understand and leverage any existing food safety-risk mitigation strategies, identify constraints consumers face when seeking to mitigate risk and potential ways to mitigate these constraints and ensure its research activities are sufficiently narrowly focused and context-specific. We will also consider any potential implications for vendor livelihoods when designing potential interventions.

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