Consumer Knowledge and Power

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This section looks at the rising awareness and increasing power of the consumer in influencing the methods and actions of the food industry. Among the topics discussed are Fairtrade, the environmental impact of the food industry and the attitude of the consumer towards dead animals. You will be able to listen to the extracts and access both a transcript and background information for each recording.

Barbara Crowther

Since 1994, the Fairtrade foundation has been forging links between farmers in the developing world and shops and conumsers in the West, helping to ensure that farmers are paid a fair price for their products. Here, Barbara Crowther, Head of Communication for Fairtrade, discusses the aims and benefits of the organisation.

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Transcript

Read more about the ethos of Fairtrade as well as the history behind the organisation.

Kath Dalmeny

Kath Dalmeny works for Sustain, a research organisation which campaigns for ethical practices in food production and farming. Here, she describes why she believes the current food system is in crisis.

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Transcript

Read more about the importance of regulating our food system to the environment, to our health and to the developing world.

Peter Jackson

Cultural geographer Peter Jackson is an expert on consumption, identities, families and food. In this extract, he reflects on the increasing amount of choice in food shops and on the consequences of this for food retailers.

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Read more about the complexities of the food industry, the power held by large retailers such as supermarket chains and the problem of market saturation.

Tim Lang

Inventor of the term 'food miles', Tim Lang is perhaps Britain's most prominent food industry critic. Here, he describes the relationship between consumer consciousness and the complexities of the food industry.

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Transcript

Read more about the complexities of the food industry, the power held by large retailers such as supermarket chains and the problem of market saturation.

Catherine Lee

Catherine Lee was working as a poultry buyer for a major supermarket when this extract was recorded. Here, she describes the average customer's attitude towards meat and how these attitudes influence her work.

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Read more about government standards and public health, squeamishness, the debate surrounding the use of chemicals in food production and the environmental impact of meat.

Paul Wilgos

Paul Wilgos is a Senior Agricultural Technologist for a major supermarket and is responsible for food safety and hygiene. Here, he reflects on the differences between intensive free-range farming and organic food systems.

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Transcript

Read more about government standards and public health, squeamishness, the debate surrounding the use of chemicals in food production and the environmental impact of meat.

Background

Food 'consumers' are said to have the power to influence the ways that food is produced. Today, we hear a lot about 'consumer rights' and 'consumer power'. But how many rights do you feel you have as a consumer?

To buy or not to buy?

Consumer power has a long history, dating back at least to the boycott of sugar by people who sought to abolish the slave trade in the 1800s. But the idea of the 'consumer' really took shape in the 1900s, with the increasing acceptance of the idea that 'consumers' can affect change through the ways they spend their money. In 1959, the anti-apartheid movement in Britain started a boycott of South African Outspan oranges in protest against inequalities between black and white South Africans. The ongoing 'No to Nestle' campaign which started in the '70s was instigated by consumer accusations that a large multinational company promoted powdered baby milk rather than breast milk in the Third World. Buying something as simple as a banana involves a range of complicated choices - its no longer just a question of how much you want to spend or how many you want to buy but whether you want ordinary, Fairtrade or organic bananas. Issues that food shoppers might be concerned about today include Genetically Modified (GM) food, food miles (how far the food has travelled), animal welfare, intensified farming and the chemicals used to kill diseases and pests.

Knowledge is power?

Today, there are laws protecting all UK consumers. Packaged food and drinks must have their ingredients listed, and must be sold with a 'use-by' date so customers know when they are safe to eat. Despite these rules, in recent years there have been a series of health scares related to food including 'bird-flu' in turkeys, BSE in beef and salmonella in eggs. In 2000, the government set up the Food Standards Agency to protect the public's heath and consumer interests in relation to food.

Shopper Surveillance

Retailers are keen to know as much as possible about their customer's shopping habits. Thanks to technological innovations in scanning and computers, supermarkets can gather and store huge amounts of data about our buying habits. The development of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) electronic tagging using wireless frequency, where a tiny chip can be embedded in a product, offers retailers the chance to 'follow' shoppers. Do you have a store loyalty card? How do you feel about your personal details being stored? Do you worry about your personal privacy?