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Food Frights

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June 3, 2011. Champaign, Illinois, USA A menace lurks in a distant land – Europe. Here, in America, I feel safe. But am I? Could the mystery cucumber bug make its way across the Atlantic? “E. Coli Crisis Intensifies,” reads a headline for today’s Wall Street Journal business section. I check, and Der Spiegel proclaims Cucumber Warning “Remains as Valid as Before.” NPR (America’s BBC), The New York Times — they’re all quaking in fear about e. coli, “superbugs,” and Spanish produce. Yet, two days before, the Guardian Online ran a remarkably measured article, “Much ado about cucumbers,” going so far as to suggest “there's no reason to stop enjoying salads.”

News media like Der Spiegel Online International continue to use the language of fear: the “massive outbreak of E. coli showed no signs of diminishing in one of the worst spreads of the poisonous bacteria ever…”

There is no mistaking it: we are deep in the midst of what I call a “food fright” — one variety of what sociologists call “moral panics.” It is a broad concept, first introduced by the British sociologist Stanley Cohen in 1972 [1]. Moral panic refers to the societal reaction to perceived danger, not danger itself.

The term is perfectly parsimonious. It has two aspects: first, a community-wide level of heightened fear (usually, but not necessarily, irrationally so); and, second, a moral dimension to the fear.

November 6, 2006: Flashback Five Years. The Spinach Scare

That fall, I was teaching “The Sociology of Deviance” at Northern Illinois University. So my students were perplexed when, the session after lecturing on American drug policy, I started a discussion about “The Spinach Scare.” At the time, Americans were getting sick from e. coli-contaminated spinach, believed to be from California. What did the “Spinach Scare” have in common with “Drug Scares” I asked them.

Initially, one might wonder where the morality is in food frights? What do vegetables have to do with crime, moral panics, sociology —anything besides making and eating food?

The important point was three-fold: (a) in 2006, the nation was in a panic, one so grossly irrational it was likely doing greater harm than good; (b) there is a subtle but fundamental moral dimension to what we put into our bodies, especially food; and (c) food and health have become cultural battlegrounds for a whole slew of contemporary moral conundrums. Let’s look at these three points more closely.

(A) Almost all research on moral panics has come from the field of criminology, and the term is, after all, about morality. So, most examples have involved “deviant” and/or criminal behavior. Some classic American examples: the ‘ritualized Satanic sexual torture of daycare children’ scandal of the 1980s, since debunked [2]; the century of American “drug scares” documented by Craig Reinarman [3]; the concept of “crack babies” now retracted by its authors and the journals that publicized it. The prototype, naturally, would be the Salem Witch Trials – our European predecessors’ burning of witches, the Spanish Inquisition, the martyrdom of Roman Christians. The criminalization and murder of homosexuals in Uganda would count as present case.

Toward the end of the American spinach “epidemic” of 2006, The New York Times (October 2) reported that one person was confirmed killed by spinach, 2 more suspected, and 187 known to have gotten sick. Judging from newspaper headlines, the Spinach Scare lasted two weeks. Yet according to the Centers of Disease Control (as it was called then), during an average week, about 6,000 Americans would be hospitalized and 100 die from food-borne illness – most of it e. coli-related. So the excess morbidity and mortality caused by bad spinach was equivalent to 90 minutes of any normal day. Yet North Americans were deeply preoccupied with it for weeks. Not only were they scared; they changed their habits, often in detrimental ways.

To be sure, the toll was far less drastic in 2006 America than it has been in 2011 Germany and Europe. Indeed, 3,000 people are confirmed infected by now, a number far above typical rates for e. coli – approaching 1-in-25000 citizens (the equivalent of each individual becoming ill almost once in their lifetime). Another 30 were dead (about one-in-2.5 million Germans; closer to one-in-one million women).

But the sociological points are consistent between the two. The same kinds of public reaction toward cucumbers are taking place now as they were then toward spinach. Spinach growers, tomato farmers, and salad eaters were deprived. Law-makers, politicians, and journalists were busy at work, instilling fear in the public. One wonders, given the known health benefits of eating green vegetables, how many life-years have been lost by abstaining from healthy food.

(B)The most obvious example of the moral dimension of food or ingestion frights to secular Westerners are probably drugs and alcohol. The moral censure of intoxicants is powerful enough that most nations imprison some people for using them. Taboos against food are fundamental to most major religions: Kosher in Judaism; vegetarianism in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Rastafarianism, and others; Islamic dietary laws including prohibitions against consuming pork, blood, and alcohol; wine and bread as Sacraments in Christianity.

In 2006, it turned out that runoff from a single industrial-style California pig farm was befouling the spinach. The offending bacterium was traveling in rainwater, washing the farm’s mountains of pig feces down upon a neighboring a plot of spinach – America’s most iconic healthy vegetable [4]. The pint-sized cartoon character Popeye the Sailorman always ate a can of it in order to grow massive forearms and beat his gigantic foe Bluto. Combine that with the contemporary American health-food and dieting craze. In the mindset of the panicked public, we weren’t eating health-food at all. We were eating pig shit.

(C) Food represents a battleground for changes and contradictions in contemporary world culture, illustrated perfectly by the present food fright over cucumbers and bean sprouts. Ironically, we learned later that cucumbers were not responsible in the slightest. But that is actually irrelevant to the sociological point. Cucumbers, sprouts, wild boars -- what really matters is the fear, its causes, and its consequences.

The cucumber catastrophe, or bean sprout battle, has been one of the most intense food frights in recent memory – involving no less than two major international incidents; global trade embargoes; substantial trauma to the economy of Spain (among others), a nation already in financial trouble; frantic grocery store restocking; last-minute changes to school lunch menus; not to mention the widespread anxiety that is now a central feature of what sociologist Barry Glassner calls our Culture of Fear [5]. Glassner applied the term to the USA, but it works just as well for any wealthy country - people expect, most of the time, to be physically safe and healthy.

In Europe, Spain and Germany are having their own spat. German health officials openly blamed the Spanish. Grocery stores cancelled orders of any vegetables from the already-suffering Spanish farmers. Spain demanded reparations and claimed these policies are only deepening the current Iberian economic crisis, threatening to cast them in with Ireland, Portugal, and Greece. In an effort to ease these tensions, Angela Merkel rang Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on the telephone. Both made conciliatory remarks through their spokespeople afterwards.

April 20, 2011. Champaign, Illinois, USA

What do beat reporters do? What do homicide detectives do? They sit around their offices working on old files, but really they’re waiting for the next homicide, like professional vultures. Like homicide, or fires, you can count on these things to come along every so often. It came to me with hardly a second thought: “what I need for my next article is a good panic about vegetables.” I even said it out loud.

I needed a food fright. I don’t know if anyone has operationalized and counted them, but they happen with enough regularity that one is always on the horizon.

And now, seven weeks later, it’s happened: tainted vegetables in Germany killed 30 people (the proximate cause of death is usually hemolytic uremic syndrome, or H.U.S., which can lead to kidney failure). It is genuinely tragic at the personal level. But at the societal and policy levels, hasn’t the social reaction been a little bit out of proportion?

Coda: June 12, 2011. One week later

From the start, there an open uncertainty about what the “real story” was. Was it really Spanish cucumbers? What was the role of organic farming, which leaves vegetable surfaces softer and more permeable to micro-organisms? What was this strain of e.coli, known as 0104:H4, that some claimed has undergone recent genetic changes, making it all the more dangerous? Was there a deeper story about the combination between the social movement to get back to the roots of agriculture – basic, organic growing techniques – and fears of high-tech, genetically modified food? A cloak of mystery remains, as if the real story, a much bigger one, is just beyond our eyes.

By now, 30 Germans are dead, the majority older women (unusual for e. coli). The Germans, major papers, and scientific institutes all agree: the source was organically grown bean sprouts, infected with a rare strain of e. coli. In the meanwhile, by contrast, the Independent (May 6) reports that some 5,000 Haitians have died from cholera so far this year.

What is certain is that this phenomenon will recur. Just as there will be new drug scares (in the United States and, to a lesser extent in the UK, there is currently a minor one over a new generation of “designer drugs,” Marijuana/THC analogs, and other “legal highs”), there will be more food frights in the future.

Sociologists have something to teach public health officials. The physiological symptoms of these “epidemics” may or may not be within our control, but the social consequences – certainly the institutional ones – are. American lawmakers should be asking themselves if criminalizing the new wave of drugs will do more harm or good. The news media should consider whether it is worth it to profit by stoking public fear. The citizenry and government must temper their emotion when making private choices and policy decisions. And we should all be asking ourselves, is it really worth it to quit eating food that’s green?

Curtis Jackson-Jacobs, freelance sociologist, PhD from UCLA 2009. E-mail either here via CrimSoc, after registering and logging in or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

[1] Cohen, Stanley. 1972. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: Routledge.

[2] Although see Brick’s article here in CrimeTalk.

[3] Reinarman, Craig. 1994. “The Social Construction of Drug Scares.” Pp. 92-104, in Adler, P. and Adler, P. (eds.), Deviance: Social Power, Context, and Interaction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

[4] “E. coli found in water, pig near spinach.” October 27, 2006. Los Angeles Times.

[5] Glassner, Barry. 1999. Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things. New York: Basic Books.

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