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Ethics of Food in Consumer Culture

The ethics of food becomes particularly impassioned at the consumer level. Individual choice is a powerful idea in Western societies and any explicit (e.g. government regulations) or implicit (e.g. marketing) influences on that choice attract heated debate. Food labels have increasingly been used as the central mechanism to limit the implicit influences on individual food choice. In addition, a wide variety of research has examined the influence of marketing practices and the food industry on consumer choice. The references below provide the context to understand some of the key ethical debates surrounding consumer choice, government regulations and the marketing of the food industry.

Food Labeling and Consumer Choice

The introduction of labeling regulations in many Western nations has attracted political and ethical debate. Some industry representatives suggest such regulations unnecessarily restrict trade, confuse consumers and are an example of government overreach. However, consumer groups and public health advocates argue that food labels protect consumers from dubious marketing campaigns and provide information for consumers to make autonomous decisions. There are a number of specific ethical labeling debates (GM, organic, fair trade, free range), the readings below provide an introduction to these debates and the emphasis on the label as mechanism to guide consumer choice.

Brownell, Kelly. D. and Jeffrey P. Koplan. (2011). Front-of-Package Nutrition Labeling — An Abuse of Trust by the Food Industry? New England Journal of Medicine, 364,2373-2375.

Brownell and Koplan address the self-regulation strategies of industry to produce their own nutritional labels. Brownell and Koplan argue that in addition to producing potentially misleading labels, this approach appears to be a strategy to avoid government or health authority labels. A short piece useful for discussing the role of self-regulation.

Lawrence, Felicity. Not on the Label: What really goes into the food on your plate.  London: Penguin, 2004.

In this work, Lawrence argues that consumers cannot take the content or claims on packaging of industrial food for granted. Written in journalistic fashion, Lawrence investigates problematic processes (migrant labor, environmental damage, animal cannibalism) through which many common foods are produced yet are not explicitly known to consumers.

Silverglade, Bruce, and Ilene R. Heller. (2010). Food labeling chaos: the case for reformWashinton, DC, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In this report for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Silverglade and Heller critically examine the labeling situation in the US and argue that scientifically accurate and consumer friendly labels are lacking. They argue that such labels are a necessary public health strategy, enabling consumers to choose nutritious food and avoid those that are associated with diet-related diseases.

Stolle, Dietlind, Marc Hooghe and Michele Micheletti. (2005). Politics in the Supermarket: Political Consumerism as a Form of Political ParticipationInternational Political Science Review, 26, 245-269.

In this paper, Stolle, Hooghe and Micheletti explore the possibility of consumerism as a form of political participation. They contend that political consumerism is an avenue through which individuals disillusioned by traditional political avenues can seek change. Political consumerism is strong drive in the debates for great information regarding the content and production of food to be disclosed on labels.

Food Industry and Marketing

The marketing practices of the food industry raise ethical and political questions regarding individual freedom, the role of governments, veracity of marketing claims and corporate and individual responsibility.  These issues are heightened in the context of marketing foods to children. The legal and ethical literature on food marketing cut across a number of disciplinary boundaries (public health, nutrition, marketing, law and sociology). The selection of readings below offers a window into the variety of analyses.

Early, Ralph. “Food Ethics: A Decision Making Tool for the Food Industry?” International Journal of Food Science and Technology Vol. 37, no. 4 (2002): 339-349.

Although not exclusively addressing marketing practices, Early’s article addresses the influence of the food industry in shaping societal and consumer relations to food. A brief overview article that is useful for prompting class discussion and debate about the role and limits of the food industry.

Hunt, Shelby D., and Scott Vitell. "A general theory of marketing ethics."Journal of Macromarketing 6, no. 1 (1986): 5-16.

In this article Hunt and Vitell provide a theoretical analysis of marketing ethics. Rather than develop a normative marketing ethic, Hunt and Vitell offer descriptive account of the decision-making processes in marketing and the relevant ethical content. This article is not focused on the food industry but provides a philosophically rigors analysis of marketing ethics that can be applied to the food industry.

Jones, Peter, Daphne Comfort, and David Hillier. 2007. "Marketing and corporate social responsibility within food stores." British Food Journal 109, no. 8: 582 – 93.

Jones, Comfort and Hillier address the relationship between corporate social responsibility (CSR) and marketing in the UK. Providing a review of the literature and examination of current practices the article analyzes the use of CSR themes in marketing discourse. A useful paper for discussing what constitutes marketing and its relation consumer ideas beyond the product itself.

Schor, Juliet B., and Margaret Ford. 2007. "From Tastes Great to Cool: Children's food marketing and the rise of the symbolic." The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 35, no. 1 (2007): 10-21.

Schor and Ford address the relationship between marketing and childhood obesity. They examine the influence of food marketing on childhood development, concluding that exposure to food marketing shapes identity and places children at greater risk of obesity.

Simon, Michèle. Appetite for ProfitHow the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back.  New York: Nation Books, 2006.

In this book Simon argues that the food industry is hypocritical for marketing foods for health while simultaneously lobbying against nutrition and public health policies. This is a provocative account of the multiple avenues (marketing, lobbying, research, policy) through which the food industry influences the food decisions of consumers, the regulatory environment and society. Simon argues against ideas of CSR or self-regulation.


Food and Consumer Identity

The relationship among food and individuals and societies extends beyond narrow normative notions of good or bad to include questions of identity and subjectivity. Social theorists, anthropologists and sociologists have examined the importance of food practices for individual and cultural identity. In Western consumer societies the choices that individuals make and the practices in which they engage can be read as markers of identity and processes through which individuals create meaning for themselves and others.

Ashley, Ben, Joanne Hollows, Steve Jones, and Ben Taylor, eds. 2004. Food and Cultural Studies. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis, 2004.

In this volume, Ashley, Hollows, Jones and Taylor draw together original research articles examining the connections between mundane everyday choices and identity. The topics covered included TV chefs, vegetarianism, risks and moral panics.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bourdieu is one of the most influential social and cultural theorists of the second half of the twentieth century. In Distinction, Bourdieu examines a variety of cultural practices, including food, and the way in which different choices and tastes classify individuals into groups and distinguish them from others.

Fischler, Claude. "Food, self and identity." Social Science Information(1988)27, no. 2: 275-92

In this paper Fischler provides a theoretically rich analysis of the relationship between food and identity in industrialized societies. This is an influential paper that isolates five problems of food and identity that have arisen due to the industrialized and commercial nature of food production and consumption.

Lupton, Deborah. Food, the Body, and the Self.  London, UK: Sage Publications, 1996.

Through an analysis of the vast representations of food in the media, film, literature and magazines, Lupton examines the relationship between food, the self and embodiment. This is a well-researched and detailed analysis that provides a useful survey of the key themes in social and cultural studies of food practices and identity.

Rousseau, Signe. Food Media: Celebrity Chefs and the Politics of Everyday Interference. London, UK: Berg, 2012.

In the context of the obesity epidemic, Rousseau examines the increasing influence of celebrity chefs in the everyday consumption practices of individuals. Rousseau argues that the perceived threat of obesity has transformed celebrity chefs from entertainers to social and political guides on how to think about, prepare and eat food.

Schlosser, Eric. Fast food nation: The dark side of the all-american meal. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001.

While Schlosser’s book has been popularly associated with critiques of the fast food industry, his concern is with the values that fast food practices represent for individuals and society. Schlosser uses the rise of fast food as a window into cultural and social transformations in American society and internationally.