Enacting freshness in the UK and Portuguese agri-food sectors (invited resubmission)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Geography

Abstract

Terms like 'fresh' and 'natural' are key words in the contemporary food industry, deployed in marketing and related commercial contexts in an almost uniformly positive way. Linking fresh and natural in the context of modern agri-food systems is, however, paradoxical as what is sold as 'fresh' frequently depends on a series of technological innovations (such as refrigeration and long-distance transportation) that are anything but 'natural'.

This project focuses on the commercial, environmental and social significance of 'freshness' as a central issue in the production and consumption of food in two contrasting national contexts (the UK and Portugal) and in three different commodity sectors (fish, poultry, and fruit and vegetables). It examines the complex social and technological arrangements that underpin the production, circulation and consumption of 'fresh' food.

Bringing together the members of three leading European research groups, the project will investigate how 'freshness' is enacted across the UK food supply chain (where survey evidence suggests that consumer concerns about quality and freshness are close to the EU average) and in Portugal (where such concerns are well above the European average). Both countries have had a recent history of 'food scares', undermining consumer confidence and trust in food, but contrast in other areas of culinary practice (including Portugal's association with a so-called 'Mediterranean diet'). While the health benefits of consuming fresh fruit and vegetables are promoted in both countries, the average consumption of fish is three times higher in Portugal than in the UK. Meanwhile, our focus on chicken will allow us to compare the 'freshness' claims associated with chilled and frozen foods in each country, particularly in terms of their perceived convenience, healthiness and sustainability.

Working closely with a range of commercial partners, the project focuses on the post-harvest processing, retailing and consumption of food including the materials (technologies, devices and infrastructures) and competencies (skills, senses, tacit knowledge) that different actors use to assess and categorise food as 'fresh'. Among consumers, we will examine the enactment of freshness in practices of food shopping, storage, cooking, eating and disposal; how meanings of freshness are combined and/or traded-off with other qualities of food (such as taste, price or provenance); and how they are understood through different forms of knowledge. Our methods include archival and documentary research, interviews and observational work with food retailers and suppliers, household observation and video ethnography with consumers and a series of experimental 'tasting events'.

Our findings will be relevant to food studies researchers, food businesses, government officials, and food-related charities and NGOs.

Planned Impact

Building on our established track record of user engagement and knowledge exchange (KE), involving a range of commercial partners, government agencies and NGOs, the current project will use a number of pathways to maximise the potential impact of our proposed research on food businesses, public policy and the wider community.

We have letters of support from Marks & Spencer in the UK and Sonae and Jerónimo Martins in Portugal. A strategic partnership is in place between Tesco and the University of Manchester governing the principles of research collaboration between the two institutions. Dr Evans (co-I) has a current knowledge exchange project with Tesco (funded by ESRC) involving interviews with key staff and access to their loyalty card and consumer panel data. Sonae is a major Portuguese retail company whose businesses include the supermarket chain Continente Modelo and the convenience store chain Continente Bom Dia. They have given us permission to observe the 'behind the scenes' operation of their fish and fruit and vegetable departments as well as providing access to key personnel in their technical, marketing and fresh produce departments (fruit and vegetables, meat and fish) for in-depth interviews and observational work. Jerónimo Martins is Portugal's largest food retailer and we have agreement from their Board of Directors to provide access to staff for interviews and work-shadowing, fieldwork in-store and with their suppliers, and involvement in research dissemination. In the UK, we have agreement from the Head of Food Technology at Marks & Spencer (M&S), including permission to observe and interview key staff in their fresh produce division (which includes fish, poultry, and fruit and vegetables) and their suppliers with whom further interviews and observational research will be conducted (see Letters of Support). The proposed research builds on our previous work with M&S which included in-depth interviews with agricultural technologists, product developers, buyers and category managers as well as breeders, growers and processors in their poultry supply chain. Our work with the Coop is at an earlier stage but we are confident of securing access to staff for interviews and observational research.

Our results will be disseminated to all of our commercial partners and to the wider retail sector.

We will use our contacts in UK government departments to ensure that our research has maximum impact on policy and practice including colleagues in the Food Standards Agency whose Social Science Research Committee Jackson chairs; Defra with whom we are currently working on an ERA-Net project; and WRAP's research and evaluation division.

We also seek to have a wider cultural impact through our partners at The British Library, through our participation in the ESRC's Festival of Social Science and through our media contacts in the UK and Portugal.

Specific impact-related mechanisms include:
* an advisory board, whose membership includes international experts in food research, the coordinator of ESRC's Retail Sector Initiative, and The British Library's food specialist, plus representatives from the food industry (M&S) and government (FSA);
* the production of non-technical summaries, distributed through a mailing list of contacts in the food industry, government, charities and NGOs;
* a project web-site and interactive blog to publicise our work and invite external comment on our findings;
* stakeholder workshops in the UK and Portugal to disseminate our results across the entire sector (beyond our specific commercial partners);
* and a final dissemination event, aimed at a national and international academic and non-academic audience.

Besides our academic publications and conference presentations we also plan to disseminate our work via the food trade press and other print, TV and radio journalists.

We estimate that 20% of our non-staff budget is dedicated to impact-related work.

Publications

10 25 50

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Jackson P (2019) Taking humour seriously in contemporary food research in Food, Culture and Society

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Jackson P (2016) Fictitious farms and marketing messages in Discover Society

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Jackson P (2018) Fresh food, quality, skill and service. in Market Times

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Jackson P (2018) The multiple ontologies of freshness in the UK and Portuguese agri-food sectors in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

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Jackson P (2019) Taking humor seriously in contemporary food research in Food, Culture & Society

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Jackson, P. (2017) Researching domestic practices

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Jackson, P. (2017) Consumer anxieties about food

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Jackson, P. (2017) Tasting event

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Meah A (2017) Convenience as care: Culinary antinomies in practice in Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space

 
Description ? * Freshness is a key co-ordinating principle in contemporary food systems. The requirement for food to be fresh shapes the geographies of primary production (what is produced and where), the technological organisation of supply chains, retail strategies, and patterns of consumption.
? * When applied to food, freshness is almost universally seen as a good thing. It conjures images of produce that is wholesome, natural and unadulterated. Its importance may seem obvious, driven by the need to provide healthy, safe and nutritious food that satisfies dietary needs and preferences. However, the year-round availability of fresh produce relies on processes that are anything but natural. These include increasingly globalised supply chains and technological interventions such as packaging and climate controlled logistics.
? * Securing freshness in industrial food systems carries significant environmental and social burdens. These range from the working conditions of seasonal agricultural labourers to the demands placed on energy, water and other resources.
? * Drawing on interviews, ethnographic observation and archival research, our research demonstrates the multiple enactments of freshness by retailers (based on complex socio-technical innovations such as cold-chain technologies, packaging and measures of food's chemical properties) and by consumers (based mainly on sensory and embodied judgements of taste, smell, touch and visual appearance).
? * Rather than seeing these differences as contrasting perspectives on essentially the same thing, we draw on the literature of material semiotics to explore the multiple ontologies of 'freshness'.
? * Our research suggests that freshness is 'done' in at least four different ways (sensory, temporal, technical, spatial). Each of these enactments comes with a distinct understanding of what freshness really is.
Exploitation Route Our research has numerous implications for policy and practice:
• Doing freshness differently will entail shifts in patterns of food consumption. However, responsibility for these shifts should not be placed solely on individuals. Changes are required to the social organisation of consumption. This will include technological change, regulatory change, and changes in supply chains as well as changes in consumer behaviour. These changes need to be co-ordinated and geared towards the consumption of 'fresh' food that has beneficial effects across the food system.
• Leaving aside the need for more conclusive evidence that local and seasonal produce is 'better' in terms of health and sustainability, our research shows that it cannot be assumed to be any 'fresher' than the alternatives.
• Efforts to effect positive changes in food systems need to find ways to align 'freshness' with patterns of food consumption that are desirable in terms of health and sustainability.
• Conversely, there are good reasons for changing the conversation about what is important in the production and consumption of food.
• The relationship between different enactments of freshness brings the contradictions of sustainable food systems into sharp relief. For example, there is a clear rationale for promoting the consumption of frozen produce. It can be safer, more nutritious, taste better, and help reduce waste. However, it may result in greater energy use along the supply chain and in domestic kitchens. Awareness of potential conflicts and trade-offs can help direct efforts to find productive synergies that minimise negative outcomes.
• The example of 'industrial freshness' showcases the potential for things that are generally thought of as a 'good' to have adverse and unintended consequences. Policies and interventions must be sensitive to how changes at one point in the food system might have knock on effects elsewhere.
• Understanding how freshness is 'done' can help us identify ways of doing it differently (in healthier and more sustainable ways). More generally, we suggest that a focus on qualities of food can help think creatively about the reconfiguration of food systems.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Retail

URL http://www.freshresearch.net/
 
Description The research was undertaken in collaboration with major UK and Portuguese food retailers. In particular, the research team engaged with Tesco and the Coop in the UK and Jeronimo Martins and Sonae MC in Portugal. Our research has also been of interest to WRAP (the Waste Resources and Action Programme) and to the Food Standards Agency both of whom are represented on our advisory board. We have also reported our findings to the National Market Traders' Federation and at an ESRC Festival of Social Science event with the Regather Food Coop in Sheffield. We have produced two Research Briefings for non-academic audiences. The English-language version is available here: https://freshresearchsheffield.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/project_report.pdf The Portuguese version is available here: https://www.ics.ulisboa.pt/flipping/observa2019_rb/ We have had extensive interactions with industry throughout the research. These include our commercial partners, Pingo Doce and Sonae/MC in Portugal, and Tesco, Marks & Spencer and the Coop in the UK. We also worked closely with other businesses along the supply chain including S H Pratt (banana importers) and their suppliers in Costa Rica (who we visited in the field). We also visited a research institute in Costa Rica (Corbana) and two banana plantations. In the UK, we developed close links with the National Market Traders' Federation and wrote an article for the trade magazine Market Times. In Portugal, the researchers were invited by the CSR arm of Sonae/MC (Missão Continente) to coordinate and organize their Second Survey on Sustainability. Co-I Monica Truninger was appointed as the main coordinator of the survey (with her colleague Luisa Schmidt). The survey was conducted in 2018 with 1600 respondents and results were launched in 2019 with a large media impact in Portuguese society. Freshness featured as an important concern and food criterion for the population. There was also data on fish, fisheries and sustainability and a set of questions on attitudes to plastic and food waste. As a spin off from the freshness project, Monica Truninger was invited to participate in a Marie Curie ITN led by Lotte Holm in Copenhagen (FEAST). She was also contacted by a company responsible for managing the biggest wholesale Lisbon market (MARL) with whom she is developing a research proposal on the Moral Economy of Fish Freshness. Co-I David Evans engaged with an organisation called 'Feeding Bristol' who are currently looking into approaches to 'fresh' and sustainable produce in public procurement and more generally at a city/city-region level. He also contributed to 'One Earth' magazine: https://www.cell.com/one-earth/fulltext/S2590-3322(19)30143-5
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Retail
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

 
Description We have produced two Research Briefings for non-academic audiences. The English-language version is available here: https://freshresearchsheffield.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/project_report.pdf The Portuguese version is available here: https://www.ics.ulisboa.pt/flipping/observa2019_rb/
Geographic Reach South America 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
URL https://freshresearchsheffield.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/project_report.pdf
 
Description Dissemination of final report (Sheffield City Hall) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact We disseminated our final report at a stakeholder event in Sheffield City Hall, working in partnership with an EPSRC project on plastic packaging. Those attending included representatives from Unilever, Coop, Defra, WRAP and the National Market Traders Federation. Copies of the report were also sent to around 30 other stakeholders from government, food businesses and charities. The report also reached an international audience through colleagues in Portugal including stakeholders in the two major food retailers (Sonae and Jeronimo Martins).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL http://www.freshresearch.net/project-final-report.html
 
Description Tasting Event (Festival of Social Sciences) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Working in collaboration with Regather (a Sheffield-based food coop), we organised an event as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences. The event consisted of a dinner with different courses designed to raise questions about taste and sustainability, key issues in our 'freshness' study.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018