Could you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about you and your career to date?

This is a difficult you said I am a sociologist, I am 44 years old and I work in the institute which is called Consumption Research Norway since 2009. I did my PhD on healthy food consumption, so in terms of my scholarly background, I am a food sociologist, whatever that means.

As sociologist, what determined you to join the team of SafeConsume?

I finished my PhD in 2016, so five years ago, and by that time I was already involved in the application for SafeConsume because it was a two-steps process. I’ve writing in my PhD about a quite novel field where we don’t tend to think about food consumption as something people individually do, but as a social practice, meaning that we, as a society, are eating in a sort of ordered way. We eat breakfast and lunch almost at the same time, our society is structured around meals and in the same time our society is structured around how food is produced, how it is imported, exported and sold in supermarkets. How can we look at food safety while we have such a broad perspective about what safe food consumption is?

Silje Elisabeth SKULAND, food sociologist

What is your role in SafeConsume?

I am the WP leader of the first WP which is a very research based WP. The other WPs are more about finding solutions, while WP1 is about finding the problem. What we decided to do in order to understand how food consumption is carried out in everyday life of consumers and how food safety is or it is not carried out in people’s everyday life was to do an observational study primarily and to observe people while shopping, transporting and cooking a meal and to ask them quite a lot of questions while they were doing these activities. We started our fieldwork in 2019 in five countries. We also decided to look at consumers with very different backgrounds, so first we wanted to observe them, because they usually live and eat in a different manner.

You are the editor and one of the authors of the Report Mapping critical food practices and cultural differences in France, Norway, Portugal, Romania and the UK (2020), which is the result of research in five countries regarding consumers' food hygiene practices. Can you tell us more about the research behind this report?

We have started from the idea that we should have different types of European consumers, so we had the east, west, south and north, and we wanted to cover the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic diet. We wanted to cover different food cultures - the big nations in the west that influenced the European development, but also eastern and southern European countries, young liberalised markets. Another way to look at this countries could be in terms of how much the state is financing welfare, how much the market is financing welfare, but also how much the family is financing welfare. In Norway and France we are talking about some very big welfare states, the state is financing quite a lot. In the UK you have a much marketized way of financing welfare, while in the southern European countries the family is more important. The next thing we had in mind was a study conducted in the 2020 called trusting food, which was also about food safety and it was based on the mad cow disease topic. The idea was to understand how consumers trust food and the food authorities, how much do they trust in science, in politicians. In terms of trust, this is very important for SafeConsume because the level of trust has something to say about following guidelines and food safety messages. These five countries are very different in terms of trust. In the north, consumers usually tend to trust food safety authorities, compared to Portugal and Romania where there is a lack of trust. UK and France are more in the between, so we have five countries where trusting food safety messages differs quite a lot. In terms of similarities and differences, there are a lot of similarities. The basic example is that we asked people to cook up a meal with chicken and some raw vegetables, a typical meal in Europe. But how do they cook it, there come the differences. We can draw a line and on the one side we have France, Portugal and Romania and Norway and UK on the other side in terms of what shape the chicken has when is cooked. In North and in UK chicken is bought and cooked fillet, while in the other three countries is used the whole chicken. Then, growing vegetables for a salad is rather common in Romania, France and also in Portugal, but it is not the case in the UK or Norway. The cooking style as well, frying in a pan was typical in Norway and UK, while roasting or boiling the chicken it was more typical in Romania, Portugal and France (especially roasting). But in essence is still chicken. Also, there was a lack of kitchen facilities in Romania, for instance having water inside the house. To prepare a meal safely you need water to rinse the vegetables and to wash your hands, if you don’t have water inside it becomes trickier. As for the other consumers that we visited in the countries, they had large houses, plenty of knifes and cutting boards, a lot of food in their fridges.

What are the barriers that might stay in the way?

In terms of difficulties, one main barrier was to find young single men because, especially in the southern part of the Europe, where young single men usually live together with their parents, so they do not need to handle and cook food too much. In Romania, all the single men recruited were urban, high educated, they were very good at cooking. It was also difficult to find elderly in Portugal because their daughters help them with shopping and cooking. In what concerns welfare, in Portugal is more a family issue, while in Norway is more a state issue. So our way of thinking the groups was challenging. A barrier was also following people from the shop to their kitchen, it takes time, and before that to make them trust the project and to explain them the project.

What kind of impact do you expect it to have?

First of all, the data from WP 1 was fed into the other WPs, in WP2, they did laboratory experiments to check out if people’s way of cooking is a safe way or not. In that sense, observing real people in their everyday life handling food it’s the great result. Our first impact was going to the second WP, but also to shape the third WP which was a big survey to find out what are the important things that need to be asked to European consumers on a broad level. Then to WP4 that aims to end up with some sort of tools. WP1 team participated in lots of workshops to find out what do people need, what could help people handle their food in a safer way. Nowadays we are working a lot with the food safety communication team in WP5. One of the main objectives was to find how to inform consumers to make safer choices in the kitchen and in the shop. The field of food safety research is huge and it’s basically occupied by food safety scientist within the field of microbiology and risk analysists, but they don’t share a very good insight about how consumers live their life. The big impact, I hope, is that WP1 helped to shed light on the complexity of how we deal with food in our everyday life. What I really, really hope is that, in order to find good solutions, we need to look at more than the individual consumer, we need to stop using the word consumer because the consumer is usually a mother, a father or a grandparent and they have a whole family around them, an economy that might be not that good, they also have some habits, and what they are trying to do is to accomplish their everyday life, to go to work, to send children to school, they also take care of some food traditions and to know this complexity and to know that food consumption is a social consumption, it isn’t an individual. Therefore, food safety solutions need to take that into consideration. One example is that if we ask an individual consumer to change their behavior from unsafe to safe, we basically ask women to do it, and women are usually in charge of the family, there is a gender aspect here. Another example is how we take care of the elderly, we have a huge state that is financing health and care or is that elderly person depending on a daughter. There are very different circumstances when it comes to dealing with food and managing food safety. If we want change something, we need to take this into consideration.

What is your best advice to consumer on how to change in order to reduce the risks of food borne illness?

In order to decrease the number of outbreaks and incidents of food borne illnesses in Europe, every part of our food life needs to be involved. As I said, we are talking about a bigger picture. Some European countries need some basic infrastructure, like water for instance. But as an advice, I would say that the best way to avoid food borne illness is to boil your food, cook it, heat it up, use temperature. When humans created fire, we’ve started moving forward. I think that the traditional boiled stew with vegetables it is not grandma’s food, but is food for the future in terms of food safety.