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

I am Monica Truninger, a sociologist and researcher at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa (ICS), in Portugal. I hold a PhD in Sociology from the University of Manchester and after working three years in the UK I have returned to ICS where I have conducted research on food, consumption, sustainability, school meals, food poverty and insecurity from a sociological lens. Nowadays, among juggling other projects, I have been leading the ICS team within the SafeConsume project, and I am glad we are now at the closing stages of the project with lots of interesting data to spread to the world!

Monica Truninger, sociologist and researcher at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais da Universidade de Lisboa (ICS), in Portugal

As sociologist, what determined you to join SafeConsume team?

I have been part of the Sociology of Consumption Research Network of the European Sociological Association for some years now, and it was through colleagues within this network (Lydia Martens and Silje Skuland) that I was invited to be part of the consortium. It seemed a fantastic opportunity to conduct interdisciplinary research with colleagues from the natural and life/health sciences and to work on a topic that is important to look at. There was also the possibility to develop work informed by practice theory by looking at consumers food practices in their kitchens, when preparing a meal composed of chicken and a fresh salad. This was promising because it was very much aligned with my own research interests. Moreover, I would be working with some people that I’ve already a good working relationship with and friendship, which is always important to make a collaborative project to work smoothly.

What is your role in SafeConsume?

I am leading the research team at ICS (a partner in the consortium) and I have been more fully involved in the tasks of WP1, WP3 and WP6 (where I lead T6.6). In the project I was responsible for conducting the sociological research with Portuguese consumers (observing the preparation of a meal) in WP1. I was also responsible for conducting fieldwork in WP6 (interviews with children and teachers about food safety) and of supervising the development of the protocol to evaluate the pedagogical materials for students in schools, that were adjusted and validated by the partners that implemented the evaluation in their countries (apart from Portugal, also the UK, France and Hungary).

What do you think will be the most important benefits/deliveries from SafeConsume?

The robust transdisciplinary scientific knowledge (from both social sciences and natural/life sciences) on food safety and on improving consumers’ practices when handling food. Hopefully this will bring important benefits to inform how to reduce foodborne illnesses in consumers’ households. However, it will take time to transfer scientific knowledge onto policy, consumers everyday practices, and to conduct better microbiological and health interventions to avoid health and food risks for consumers. Also, it will take time to include this topic in the school curricula as a compulsory and important issue, where learning in practice and in a participatory way should be favoured instead of learning in class through abstract learning. This is a topic that should be approached through learning in a community of practice because food and cooking are very much part of mundane routines. It is important to enable students to learn ‘hands on’ how to handle food safely, considering the social and cultural conventions of everyday food practices.

What are the ambitions of your operation in the field of changing consumer patterns of behaviour?

To conduct robust and sound transdisciplinary research that has the potential to inform in a holistic way how and why consumers handle food the way they do, and why this could be an issue (or not, an advantage to explore further as good practice). By understanding better, the hows and the whys of consumers’ food handling we can develop better policy interventions that mitigate foodborne illnesses in domestic settings.

What do you think about the organic food market / industry?

The organic food market/industry has encouraged the agri-food industry to consider the environmental, health and social impacts of their operations, and in this sense, it has brought awareness for the major impacts of producing food, both on the body and on the planet. Independently of scientific controversy whether organics is better or not than conventional farming, the fact is that it helped to raise awareness to the contribution of the agri-food sector to climate change. From a consumer point of view, it has also been important to tune in a section of the population to be aware of the impacts of food production, connecting better consumption and production arenas (by making visible what has remained invisible for consumers throughout decades). However, organic food is not accessible to everybody due to its cost and physical access, and there is evidence of organic food industry operations that have become very similar to conventional operations, relaxing the norms of chemical input use, exploiting farming labour, and so on. This has obliged the further tightening of rules and norms, the adjustments in regulations, and better control of certification practices to improve some of these issues and increase trust of consumers in this sector. There are some studies that report that if the entire planet converts to organic farming this major endeavor is still not enough to feed the population and ensure a GHG emissions neutral agricultural system. However, even if a combination of sustainable agricultural practices (organic or not) is the way forward, the current areas allocated to organic farming and the market share have still a large margin to grow. The European Green Deal, namely through its Farm to Fork strategy promises to offer opportunities for this sector to grow with the objective of achieving at least 25% of agricultural land managed under organic agricultural practices by 2030. Also, the current pandemic has stimulated political will to deliver on the promise of transforming substantially our current agri-food systems, and organic farming is certainly an important player in this massive challenge.

Since we are talking about SafeConsume and the name itself is suggesting us, the consumers, to consume safe food and to develop a healthy behavior, what do you think is the first thing that consumers should keep in mind in order to do so? What is your advice?

I believe that consumers are an important part of this equation, but perhaps more important is the industry, the state, the market, and their will to shift the way food is produced, controlled, and delivered to consumers’ households, so that people can rely on a safe and trustworthy food system without having to worry about the quality of their food. Consumers should also do their part by learning and incorporating in their everyday practices safer ways of handling food, and these messages can circulate more widely through cooking shows and TV cookery programs, the public health centers and hospitals, more clear and concise information on the food packages, the curricula in schools, the technologies and materialities (food packages, fridges, kitchen layout) that incorporate and trigger by default safer ways of handling food. All this shows that a small part relies on the shoulders of consumers, and the bigger role actually pertains to wider societal and material dimensions. One precious lesson that SafeConsume taught us is that consumers are embedded in society and their practices rarely depend only on individual will, but are structured by their social demographics, their access to food and provisioning systems, their competences and skills, their social networks, the temporalities and spatiality’s of their everyday practices, shared cultural conventions of what normal food safety handling is in their households and among their family and friends. Unfortunately, to encourage consumers to seek information about food safety is not enough to change behaviour. That is why it is exciting to research such a challenging topic: there is no easy answer to this puzzle!