On Risk

Last week after observing I helped myself to a plate of food from the hot bar of the co-op. At 4:36am the next morning I woke up with a terrible headache, intense abdominal cramps, nausea and the chills. I ran to the bathroom and proceeded to get sick for the next 5 hours.Later that night I did a little research to find that I was 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) who gets sick each year from foodborne illnesses. According the Center for Disease Control (CDC), each year roughly 128,000 people are hospitalized and 3,000 people die of foodborne diseases.

A couple days later at the co-op I found myself steer clear of the hot bar and the surrounding vicinity. When I thought of ‘hot bar’ and ‘co-op’ two things came to mind: yuck and stay away. I began to wonder why I had such a strong visceral reaction. How were issues of food safety being played out in a larger context?  How do corporations, the government and other consumers deal with issues of food safety? It seemed that everytime I was around or thought about food for the next week, risk was somehow involved.

In ‘Food, publics, science’ Gwendolyn Blue explains that the 1990s marked a turning point in the ways in which food is talked about. Where it used to be talked about in terms of nutrition and access, public attention now focuses increasingly on issues of risk, including infectious microbes, chemical toxins, new technologies, and emergent zoonotic diseases. In fact, Blue says

food as a site in which risk is negotiated

This accurately describes how I feel about the hot bar at the co-op. A site in which risk must be negotiated. In the days that followed being sick, the more I realized that it’s not just after getting food poisoning that I have to contend with risk; it’s all the time. It’s everywhere. It’s on the health labels we see in products, the advertising campaigns adopted by corporations to capitalize on our fears of food safety, literally anything relating to food and public safety likely has someone involved aiming to reduce the perception of risk.

This is fascinating. It means that whether or not I like it or even realize it, my actions as a food consumer  make me involved in forms of political engagement (Blue, 153). I am bound up in the larger context of consumer politics of food related issues just as we all are. All in all, after doing my own research on the topic of risk, I’ve realized that there’s no avoiding it, for it’s everywhere, but we can participate by voting on foods that we find safe with our dollar.

FN 3/12


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