Mundane choices and everyday encounters; food labelling as an access point to the Australian food system.

Author: Emma Tonkin

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 4 Nov 2019.

Tonkin, Emma, 2016 Mundane choices and everyday encounters; food labelling as an access point to the Australian food system., Flinders University, School of Health Sciences

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This research aimed to explore both how food labelling influences consumer trust in the Australian food system and the corresponding implications for food labelling governance. Social theories of trust were utilised to locate food labelling in the wider literature regarding trust in food, and theoretically explore the role of labelling as a communication medium between consumers and food system actors in globalised food systems. A systematic literature review was conducted to model the role of food labelling as it pertains to consumer trust in food systems. A qualitative in-depth interview study was then completed with 24 South Australian consumers (Study 1) to explore how consumers construct meaning through interaction with labelling, and how this influences their perceptions relating to trust and risk. A second qualitative in-depth interview study (Study 2) was then completed with 15 Australian and New Zealand food labelling policy, regulatory and enforcement actors to explore their response to the findings of Study 1, and determine their perceptions of the implications for food labelling governance in Australia. The research was informed by a social constructionist epistemological position, utilising the methodology of Adaptive Theory in Study 1, and Colebatch’s social constructionist perspective on policy as a framework in Study 2. The initial theoretical development and literature reviews suggested labelling plays a role in influencing consumer trust in food systems. They also highlighted a gap in that the majority of work completed in the area of food labelling and trust did not engage with social theory in the development of the key concept of trust. Findings from Study 1 showed a role for food labelling consistent with Giddens’ conceptualisation of ‘access points’; labelling acts as a surrogate for personal interaction in disembedded, globalised food systems, facilitating the formation of trust judgements about specific food system actors, and the broader food system. Consistent with Barber’s conceptualisation of trust, consumer trust judgements appeared to be based on expectations of technical competence and goodwill from food system actors, and were found to be supported by complementary social control mechanisms. Labelling was primarily found to reduce trust in actors within the food system, undermining trust in the system as a whole. It was also found that consumer perceptions of food risk can be usefully conceptualised using Beck’s distinction of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ risk, and food labelling is used as both a symbol and a tool by consumers to manage uncertainty associated with these perceived risks. In Study 2 food governance actors reconstructed the role of labelling, the function(ing) of trust, the outcome measures for trust in the system, and both the philosophical approach underpinning, and the processes within, the regulatory environment to position the implications of Study 1 findings for the food governance system as either irrelevant or unworkable. Through this reconstruction of the key issues, the moral concerns expressed by Study 1 participants were perpetuated rather than addressed. This work demonstrates the benefits of incorporating social theory in public health research, and challenges the dominant framing of food labelling as simply a one-way technical information exchange between consumers and producers.

Keywords: food labelling, trust, Australia, food policy, social theory, goverance, public health, food
Subject: Nutrition and Dietetics thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2016
School: School of Health Sciences
Supervisor: Professor John Coveney