TWENTY-FOURTH FAO REGIONAL CONFERENCE FOR EUROPE
MONTPELLIER, FRANCE, 5-7 MAY 2004
Agenda Item 6
FOOD SAFETY AND QUALITY IN EUROPE:
1. Rural areas in Europe and its societies are facing many important challenges resulting from the profound changes that have taken place over the last two decades, in addition to innovations brought about by current ongoing processes such as the EU enlargement and the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) Reform. High priority is now placed on development policies and programmes aiming to achieve a balance between agricultural production and environmental quality, improved nature conservation, rural diversification, human development and the liberalization of trade (GATT, WTO) but just as crucial for the economies in transition are the processes concerning privatization and the structural reform of agriculture and the agro-food systems.
2. Across the whole of the European Region the issue of food safety and quality1 was given prominence on the political and public agenda2. This followed the increasing occurrence of foodborne diseases (diseases caused by micro-organisms in food including Salmonella sp, Campylobacter sp, Listeria monocytogenes, E. coli O157, C. botulinum (among others)) and other food-related risks to health linked to chemical contaminants in food (i.e. mycotoxins) or environmental contaminants (dioxins, mercury, lead and radionuclides), pesticides, veterinary drugs and food additives3. In addition the occurrence of diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), bird flu and pig plague have raised questions regarding food safety and quality. There are also growing concerns about animal health and welfare and the technological innovations resulting from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
3. The food safety and quality issue is a complex and multidimensional one extending “from the field to the table” and it has economic, social, cultural, environmental and political consequences. Food safety and quality, on the one hand, is associated with the type of agricultural production (e.g. intensive, extensive, organic), the place of production, the introduction and promotion of novel foods (i.e. foods not yet used for human consumption, in particular those containing or deriving from GMOs), animal health and welfare, storage conditions, marketing, hygienic standards and regulations, consumers’ awareness and lobbying and nutritional characteristics. However, it also encompasses different socio-cultural and political relations and divisions among various social actors4 (men and women as individuals, groups and institutions in their multiple roles as producers, consumers, etc.) throughout the process “from the field to the table”. For this reason a more holistic attitude towards food safety and quality is called for which should include adequate participatory and gender5 considerations.
4. Being aware of the importance of food safety and quality in the FAO European Region, the FAO/ECA Working Party on Women and the Family (WPW), FAO’s advisory body on issues pertinent to rural women (and rural families), wishes to contribute through this paper to the ongoing debate with the view to ensuring a more efficient and holistic approach to food safety and quality.
5. Throughout the FAO European Region, rural men and women, and women in agriculture6, are involved with issues concerning the quality and safety of food, playing various and multiple roles in the agro-food system; they are producers, consumers, processors, traders, decision-makers and lobbyists for safe and quality food.
6. Introducing a “gender perspective” implies looking at and analyzing the roles and responsibilities of men and women throughout the agro-food system, i.e. posing questions such as: How, where and by whom is the food produced? Who is responsible for the conditions and methods of production? How and where, and by whom, is it acquired? What is acquired? How and by whom is it prepared? How and where is it eaten? How and by whom are wastes disposed of? etc. In addition other questions more directly concerned with food quality and safety need to be addressed, such as: Who determines which food is safe and of high quality? Who has access to the relevant data pertaining to food quality and safety? (i.e. standards and legislation) and, how and by whom is this information disseminated?
7. Men and women, as social actors, play different roles, have different responsibilities, tasks and life experiences in relation to food safety and quality. They also perceive food differently. Thus the agri-food systems and chains are ‘gendered’. Consequently, strategies and policies to change or restructure these systems and chains will have different implications for men and women. However it is indisputable that the gendered nature of the agricultural and rural development sector, including consumption, has implications for issues of food safety and quality.
8. Food safety and quality originates at the level of primary production7. The productive structure of the Region is heterogenized; small, medium and large-scale farms (and small transformation and distribution firms) are operating and competing side by side with agribusiness and the transnational food and distribution corporations.
9. Women throughout Europe are extensively involved in the production and processing of food whether it be in the role of farm head, co-owner of farms or family farm worker. They are also employed in farm and food processing enterprises, often part of the skilled labour force, working as professionals and managers. While acknowledging the contribution of all women working in their various roles in agribusiness and transnational agri-food corporations (unskilled and skilled workers, professionals, inspectors, managers, etc.), the main focus of this paper is rural men and, in particular, rural women.
10. In the EU, women make up nearly 40 percent of the agricultural labour force (EUROSTAT, 2002) and in the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries the average is about 50 percent. Farm women as producers are involved in both small-scale and larger scale agricultural units and they play a part in intensive, extensive and ecological food production. The data available shows a higher percentage of women owning small rather than large-scale farms.
11. In general, the number of female-headed farm households as well as the number of farms co-owned by women is increasing in the EU countries8. This important development started in the early 1990s stimulated by tax reliefs together with the necessity to appoint a full-time working farm-head to be able to utilize the various subsidies. Consequently, the legal status of farm women changed quite considerably as the status of farm head not only grants them access to farm production resources as official (co)owners of the farm, land, machinery etc., but also allows them to have a direct influence on production methods and processes used on the farm.
12. Women are involved in many types of agricultural production and are also important initiators of innovative activities on family farms, e.g. new methods of growing food, ecological farming, and/or activities resulting in additional income such as food processing and rural tourism, promotion of local foods and products through locally-based sales and direct marketing, building up closer links and alliances with consumers and local dwellers9 in order to build mutual trust in the way food is produced.
13. As far as off-farm activities are concerned, women frequently take the first step in building up new businesses10, particularly in the food industry, e.g. milk processing and cheese production, ice cream, meat products (e.g. salamis), preserves and jams, bread and other flour-based products, dried fruits, alcoholic drinks, berry wines, etc. With a view to food safety and quality issues it is relevant that these women have access to information regarding relevant standards (e.g. HACCP, HCPs) and regulations, and it is also important that these standards are available in a language that can be understood by the users and that appropriate training regarding implementing these standards is provided. It is also important to ensure that action is taken in order that these standards be implemented at the ‘local level’. Questions that arise are whether women and men have differential access to the relevant information (i.e. hazards linked to the traditional way of processing food) and how it can be ensured that all concerned have equal and continuous access to such information. As food producers, women need adequate information concerning the use of pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals, in particular with regard to food safety and quality.
14. A major factor for increased involvement of women in the production of safe and (high) quality food is ensuring access to adequate and better education and providing information on the opportunities available. In a study made by Kania in Poland (2000), he outlined the needs of rural women as identified personally by them and included observations made by the agricultural extension officers. This study demonstrated that rural women desire more information and training on healthy (not hazardous to health) food production, biodynamic vegetable growing and family nutrition. The experts, however, rated these areas as low priority areas for rural women, as they felt that they have already been “properly” trained (ibid).
15. To better understand the roles of men and women as producers in relation to food safety and quality, the relevance of gender relations should be further analyzed, i.e. practices and socio-economic conditions affecting men and women’s knowledge of and decisions regarding the use of different chemicals (i.e. pesticides, herbicides), and their knowledge and conceptions of safe and quality food, etc. A lack of awareness among women in CEE countries concerning environmental pollution and food produced under these conditions has been observed. This issue would need to be addressed as farmers in CEE countries have a relative advantage with regard to ecological production11 and would be able to play a leading role in this market niche.
16. With regard to food processing in rural areas both tradition and cultural heritage provide a basis for reference and innovation. At the same time food’s symbolic value of identification and differentiation (Fonte, 2003) has lead to the creation of strong links between local food and local heritage and identity, the construction of cuisines de terroir(s) and according economic value to local-food producing knowledge and skills through the establishment and policing, for example, of systems modelled on ‘appellation d’origine contrôlée’, e.g. in France, Ireland, Italy and Slovenia. These trends also offer opportunities for synergy with new activities in rural areas, i.e. such as agri- and rural tourism.
17. Women often are the bearers of knowledge (some times hidden due to gender biases12) and experience of rural areas with regard to the use of a great variety of plants (vegetables, wild fruits, mushrooms, herbs) as well as regarding local/regional foods and their preparation, processing methods, storage, etc. Knowledge of wild foods and medicines is an important part of people’s cultural knowledge and is passed from one generation to another, e.g. from mother to daughter. Albanian women living in Southern Italy, for example, gather more than 30 species of wild greens (i.e. Scolymus hispanicum in vineyards) to supplement their daily diet and prepare special soups to be eaten during religious festivals. It has also been noted that such products are becoming more and more attractive for niche food markets and ecotourism.
18. The growing trend of women starting up small enterprises in the local food industry13 highlighted the fact that other gender-specific restrictions may apply and contributed to the generation of new jobs in rural communities. Another positive effect of local food processing and marketing, with particular relevance to food safety and quality, is that such food does not have to travel long distances and is therefore less vulnerable to any loss of nutrients (i.e. fruits and vegetables). As far as meat is concerned, producing and selling meat locally avoids the long transport of livestock, thus preventing, among other things, the spread of diseases. With global trade of food there is a higher risk of contamination en route and therefore more preservatives are used for conservation. Furthermore, industrial food processing has not always left the food free of bacteria. In the United Kingdom, for example, food poisoning incidents due to industrial processing (i.e. additives, flavourings, hygiene) increased five-fold between 1982 and 1999 (British Public Health Laboratory, 2001). Industrial processing can also remove much of the taste and colour from food and have most of its nutritional content stripped away (e.g. some highly refined products such as white flour, white sugar and white rice). The global food industry often compensates for this by adding artificial flavourings (e.g. monosodium glutamate) and colourings, thus augmenting the number of chemicals people consume daily. Some of these may have negative impacts on human health (FAO/WHO PEC 01/04).
19. It has been observed that a growing number of consumers (men and women) are losing faith in industrially produced food and they seem to be increasingly pursuing two so-called trust strategies; i.e. consuming organic foods or local products.
20. In order to enable rural women to meet consumer demands there is still a need to promote the development of processing controlled by, or accessible to, women, with a view to increasing the value added under current market conditions, and to enable women to acquire the subsequent benefits. This would include consideration of a broad range of processing technologies, particularly small-scale production at the farm level.
21. Furthermore, women and men involved in production and at other levels of agri-food systems and chains, must be ensured access to education and information concerning their activities, both in general terms, and in relation to the implementation of new quality systems and regulations. Also in some cases, rural women alone may not be able to meet adequate food safety and quality requirements, so there is a need for establishing an enabling environment.
22. Below is an example which illustrates how an enabling environment can be created to empower rural women to act as producers, processors and traders:
Food processing and production of traditional food has a long tradition on Slovenian farms and has led to additional income generation. However, with the introduction of new food safety and quality standards and regulations many small-scale producers, including women, were unable to meet these new requirements. With the assistance of an organization called Activating Local Potential (A.L.P. PECA), a local partnership organization, rural women in the region of Koroška in the north of Slovenia set up a joint infrastructure under the framework of the Small Business Development Centre14 (SBDC)’s programme for supporting entrepreneurial activities of women.
An old barn was restored to accommodate the “incubator” where different activities were carried out, these ranged from processing of fruits and vegetables and production of traditional food based on flour, to bottling of fruit juices and cider, and drying fruits and vegetables for packaging and distribution.
In particular, local women benefited from these joint facilities (which met the relevant food technology and sanitary standards) where they could process fruits and vegetables and bake traditional foods, such as nut cake, bread and cookies. The bottling and fruit drying units both proved to be successful. Thirteen farmers (3 men and 10 women) joined the programme, but the number has more than doubled since then. Outside of the production season, the facilities are used for training and capacity-building as well as product development (women experiment with new recipes, develop new products, etc.). The establishment of the centre was a success also in marketing terms. At first products were offered to the local market, but as the demand for home-made products have grown, particularly in connection with various culture events and celebrations where local and traditional foods are served, catering became an important income-generation activity for rural women in the region. Innovative packaging (small wooden boxes, baskets, etc.) was developed specifically for the centre, and a common brand “Dobrote izpod Pece” was established. Joining forces had saved time for individual producers, allowed products to meet the required quality standards and provided for more efficient distribution.
Based on Marosek and Verbole, 2001
23. The above example demonstrates how food safety and quality requirements can be met by small-scale producers (men and women) and how high investment costs for individual producers can be avoided while, in turn, the consumer obtains a safe and high quality home-made product based on traditional ways of preparing food and locally produced ingredients.
24. It is also important to note that unless gender bias in small-scale agriculture and the food processing industry (e.g. traditional division of labour and responsibility between men and women, social perceptions of what is, and what is not, acceptable for men and women) are tackled, there is a danger that production, processing and business development will become male dominated. The preoccupation is that female producers, traders and entrepreneurs, who often lack access to finance (usually because of lack of collateral) and are constrained by gender divisions in the labour market as well as by social norms governing appropriate behaviour, will become incorporated as agents in men’s operations, or be unable to compete and cease producing, processing and trading.
25. Consumer demands, perceptions and response to food safety and quality incentives are vital for the development of the agro-food sector, and this area includes issues concerning gender perspectives on the part of consumers. The importance of lobbying to increase the role of women in decision-making. should be highlighted.
26. Changes in society, such as the new roles of men and women, the decreasing size of families, introduction of new technologies (e.g. microwave ovens), changes in nutritional patterns (e.g. saturation of energy intake) and eating behaviour (e.g. eating at the work place, in restaurants or at fast food outlets), the availability of convenience foods (canned, frozen, powdered, pre-cut food) and similar, are all relevant to the issue of food safety and quality.
27. In today’s modern and late modern societies mass consumption is prevailing based on standardized products. Most food is acquired in supermarkets and to a lesser extent at the farmers’ markets (depending on the country) or directly from producers.
28. At the same time, as a growing number of consumers are losing faith in industrially produced food, the demand for ecologically (produced with regard to principles of sustainability, naturalness and animal welfare) and locally grown food, which is not homogenized, has been consequently increasing.
29. Gender relations within the family, as well as in society in general, determine who is responsible, for example, for domestic work and child care. Buying, preparing and cooking food are still mainly in the female domain, although men are also slowly taking up these responsibilities and tasks. Women as consumers are, therefore, at the household level, in a position of decision-making concerning safe and quality food. In relation to this it is also important to note that women are cultural carriers of traditions connected to food, but they are also at the same time eager to welcome new trends.
30. The type and quality of food people consume depends on their income, lifestyle (e.g. urban versus rural lifestyle), the position of women in the labour market, the size and characteristics of the family as well as cultural dimensions (i.e. ethics, pleasure).
31. For example it was also identified that households in the CEE countries are spending a high proportion of their income on food. While in the EU the average citizen spends 17.4 percent of his/her income on food, in the EU accession countries almost half (44.8 percent) of income is spent on food.15 The share of the average income spent on food increased following transition due to rising food prices and decreasing incomes. This resulted in people buying cheaper food of a lower quality, reducing their intakes of milk, meat and vegetables.
32. This is important, in particular in view of the healthy eating campaigns that often target women in their role as food providers for the family without taking into account that what is considered to be a healthy diet may often be beyond the reach of women and men on low incomes.
33. Food is frequently associated with health and vice-versa. Research by Smith (2002) shows that women are well aware of the importance of healthy food for their own health and their family’s health. However, Smith also observed that knowledge about healthy eating does not and cannot necessarily lead to a change in eating habits. While many people are making an effort to improve their diet, being aware that many diseases, e.g. blood cholesterol, obesity, high blood pressure in the European Region are caused by consuming too much food and/or unhealthy food, and unbalanced diets16, there continues to be a steady rise in fast food and high-fat/empty calorie snacking. Bowers (2000) observed that many consumers feel that the preparation of nutritious and healthy food takes too long. It appears that there is a need for more research on how men and women interact with food, and what they perceive as safe and quality food.
34. Food consumption is also becoming, for the so-called active consumers, more and more a means to fight environmental degradation and to pursue the protection of resources such as local products, local processing techniques, health and taste. A growing number of consumers consider locally produced food to be safer. Many consumers also believe that local distribution systems can improve the quality of food because of less processing and loss of nutritional value.
35. Consequently, a new trend has been noted throughout Europe. The new links between men and women in agriculture as producers and consumers, but also the links which are developing between farm, rural and urban women in support of local food (Sage, 2000; Tovey 2002). Through these links or what Sage (2000) calls “good agro-food networks”, the trust and loyalty between producers and consumers are established and maintained, and knowledge is exchanged providing the basis for developing safer and better quality food.
36. At the same time these networks contribute to strengthening local economies and their identity, and permit a better use of local resources. The direct contact between consumers and producers gives both rural women and women consumers an important role as decision-makers in relation to food consumption. In this connection there is a need for easy access to information about food content as detailed in tracing and labelling systems.
37. Women play an important role not only in securing safe and quality food at the household level, but also in public arenas, i.e. through their membership in consumer organizations, movements for ecological, traditional and locally produced food (i.e. Slow Food17, Women’s Food and the Farming Union in the United Kingdom18), agro-food networks, NGOs, etc. However, they still face many obstacles (e.g. making their voices heard and their views count) and their participation in decision-making is low.
38. An effective food safety and quality policy must recognize the relationship between food production and consumption, and the importance of studying the agri-food systems and chains also from a gender perspective. Formulating relevant policy requires assessment and monitoring of the risks to consumer health associated with raw materials, farming practices and food processing activities from a wider and more holistic perspective. It requires effective regulatory action to manage risk, and it requires the establishment and operation of control systems to monitor and enforce observation of these regulations. In all these steps of the process of ensuring safe and healthy food of high quality, men and women must be involved to provide the broadest possible perspective and ensure development based on the best resources. An important aspect regarding the strengthening of women’s participation is the involvement of rural and farm women in counselling and advisory services dealing with food safety and quality.
39. In order to empower rural populations, and in particular women, to act as producers, food processors, consumers, policy-makers and lobbyists, a greater understanding of the current and changing roles and perceptions of men and women with regard to food safety and quality is needed. The policy target of improving food safety and quality cannot, and should not be, implemented without adequate knowledge and awareness of these facts and aspects.
40. To summarize, a greater understanding of the current and changing roles, responsibilities, tasks and experiences of men and women in relation to food safety and quality is required to ensure a more efficient and holistic approach to ensuring safe and high quality food for all.
41. The WPW will continue to work on issues pertinent to food safety and quality in the Region from a gender perspective following the strategy which was presented at the 32nd Session of the European Commission on Agriculture in 2002 (FAO/ECA 32/02/3).
42. The WPW believes that men and women as producers, processors, consumers, lobbyists and decision-makers should share responsibility for food safety and quality. Further, it believes that supporting local agri-food systems and chains not only contributes to improving the safety and quality of food products but also offers good opportunities for small- and medium-sized farms to survive in the changing conditions of agriculture in the European Region. Local food increases consumers’ confidence, helps to sustain employment and, at the same time, generates new jobs in rural areas throughout the Region, thus strengthening the local economy.
43. In the light of the above discussion concerning a more holistic understanding and, in particular, a more gender-sensitive approach to food safety and quality, several recommendations are proposed by the WPW. They concern the following: capacity-building, gender-disaggregated data, regulations and the question of access to resources including information, communication, lobbying and decision-making.
44. The WPW recommends the following:
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1 In this paper the FAO European Commission on Agriculture (ECA) definition of food safety and quality is used: “Whereas food safety refers to all those hazards that may make food injurious to the health of the consumer, food quality includes all other attributes that influence a product’s value to the consumer. Quality is then complementary to food safety and the dialogue is based on the two concepts” (FAO/ECA 33/04/01).
2 Food safety and quality was, for example, one of the central issues addressed at the World Food Summit: fyl and in 2002, the FAO/WHO Pan-European Conference on Food Safety and Quality was organized in Hungary. The EU has also taken action and in its White Paper on Food Safety (EC, 2000) stated that the European Union’s food policy must be built around high food safety standards, which serve to protect and promote the health of the consumer. In addition FAO and WHO have been working jointly, since 1963, on food standards, guidelines and codes of practice through the Codex Alimentarius programme. (FAO/WHO, 2002; http://www.codexalimentarius.net, http://www.fao.org/es/esn/food/foodquality).
3 FAO/WHO PEC 01/04.
4 For actor-oriented approach to development see Long (1992) and Verbole (2000a).
5 Gender refers to the social definition of roles, identities and power relations between men and women. Gender relations differ over time, across regions, and according to factors such as age, religion, ethnicity, and class. In other words, gender roles and relations exist everywhere, but in varying conditions.
6 It should be pointed out here that rural men and women, and men and women in agriculture, do not necessarily belong to the same social groups. They differ not only in their involvement with agricultural production and lifestyle, but also in their level of participation in public and political spheres. In this paper the term "rural men/women" refers to all men and women living in rural areas (open countryside and small settlements), while the term "men and women in agriculture" is used to refer to men and women who are actively involved in agricultural production or are supported by an agriculturally active person (based on Barbic, 1994 and Verbole, 1997, 2002a).
7 The Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point System (HACCP) was developed to ensure that food is safe prior to distribution. The system encompasses a set of controls implemented and verified at each step in the agro-food chain (e.g. producers, farmers, fishermen, food processors,retailers, distributors, storage and transport, etc.). Other food safety and quality assurance systems may include Good Hygiene Practices (GHPs) and Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) (http://www.fao.org/es/esn/food/foodquality, http://www.euro.who.int/foodsafety, http://www.who.int/foodsafety).
8 Data are not available for the CEE countries.
9 The latter is achieved through the so-called principle of open-doors, farmers welcome other citizens to their premises and involve them in their activities (e.g. picking their own fruit).
10 A comparative study from France and Norway shows that under agricultural restructuring women tend to choose farm diversification whereas men prefer to specialize in farm production (Forde, 2003). This allows women to become more directly involved in the various stages of the agri-food systems and chains.
11 Due to a lack of money to purchase fertilizers, pesticides, etc. over the past ten years soil has not been polluted (de Rooij and Bock, forthcoming).
12 Howard-Borjas (2001) observed “gender bias” in social and natural sciences meaning that researchers take prevailing gender norms in society to be ‘natural’ and often incorporate these norms into their theories as unquestioned assumptions. It also means that researchers assume male predominance and take men’s behaviour and knowledge to be ‘standard’ (e.g. men are farmers, ‘leaders’, ‘healers’, ‘carriers of local knowledge’, etc.).
13 Bock (forthcoming) observed that women usually cannot set up large enterprises as they often lack the resources to do so.
14 The Small Business Development Centre (SBDC) operates under the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
15 Consumers in Bulgaria and Romania exceed this average (53.5 percent and 58 percent). Cyprus is the only country with a level comparable to that of the EU-countries (18.6 percent). In Slovenia the expenditure on food is relatively low (24 percent). Within the EU, Portugal is an exception with consumers spending more than a quarter of their budget on food (27 percent). To a lesser degree, this is also true for consumers in Greece (21.3 percent) (de Rooij and Bock, forthcoming).
16 WHO (2002).
17 Slow Food boasts 77,000 members in 48 countries. Gender-disaggregated data on membership are not available. (http://www.slowfood.com).
18 This voluntary organization was founded in 1979. It is committed to promoting an understanding of, and confidence in, all aspects of quality British produce. Gender-disaggregated data on membership are not available (http://www.wfu.org.uk).