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The requirements of society in terms of the safety of food of animal origin – a reflection on the case of France

Author(s) : P.-B. Joly

Summary :

Are consumers obsessed by ‘zero risk’? Is their relationship to food of animal origin irrational? The comments and reactions during the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis that began in November 2000 certainly suggest so. However, sociological surveys conducted at the height of the crisis refute this impression: judging by individual perceptions, risk is not an obsession; it is only one of several aspects of people’s relationship to animal products. Furthermore, concern about healthy eating is not new and, regarding meat specifically, it is linked to the fundamental ambivalence of our relationship to animal flesh. Taking these invariants into account, this paper aims to identify the specific characteristics of our contemporary societies that cause us to set requirements in terms of the safety of products of animal origin. We adopt the thesis of the vulnerability of our societies: a combination of various factors triggers crisis situations, the scale of which is often out of proportion to the gravity of the danger. Vulnerability is particularly acute with respect to food, because the volatility of consumer behaviour is at odds with the relative inflexibility of the livestock industry. Consequently, it is imperative to put an end to certain misconceptions, particularly the requirement of ‘zero risk’. The requirements of our societies must be expressed in procedural rather than substantial terms. This leads us to explore the characteristics of a new system of risk management, based on the idea of the ‘responsible consumer’, who participates in decision-making.

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