Facing the future of food

By Hannah Preston

Dr Nicola Bown presenting at the ESRC food seminar
Dr Nicola Bown opening the seminar

Earlier this month, the University of Leeds hosted the final seminar in a nine part series focusing on food options, opinions and decisions.

The series, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), aims to understand and improve UK consumers’ decisions about nutrition, food safety, and domestic food waste. The project has been led by a cross-disciplinary team with partners at the University of Leeds (Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin, Dr Gulbanu Kaptan, Dr Nicola Bown and Professor Louise Dye); Newcastle University (Professor Lynn Frewer); the Food Standards Agency (FSA) (Dr Sian Thomas); and Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) (Dr Tom Quested).

About the series

The nine seminars have taken place over the last three years at the partners’ various locations in Leeds, Newcastle, London and Banbury and have featured a variety of highly engaging international speakers.

Speakers and panel members have included: Professor Tim Benton, University of Leeds; Craig Noonan, Co-operative; Kieron Stanley, Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA); Professor Paul Rozin, University of Pennsylvania; and Dr Andrew Parry, WRAP. (For a full list of speakers and panel chairs, visit the project website.)

At the most recent seminar, the panel was chaired by Jay Rayner, food critic, broadcaster, musician and writer for the Observer and the Guardian.

The latest seminar was also complemented by the University of Leeds Treasures of the Brotherton Library special exhibition “Cooks and Their Books” which showcased the unique collection of recipes and cookbooks held by Leeds and available for research.

The seminar series has been timely and novel as it follows calls to better understand and inform the complex decisions consumers face about nutrition, food safety, and food waste.

Research shows that we need better communications for consumers about food as there are still major problems within each area. For example:

Different organisations in different domains are communicating to consumers about food, but these messages tend to focus on just one topic in isolation and so often the messaging regarding food safety, nutrition and waste is unintentionally contradictory. For example, consumers may be encouraged to buy more fresh food for nutrition, but as it is more perishable it can lead to questions about food safety, which in turn results in people throwing away food too soon, creating unnecessary food waste.

Through this series, we have taken the important step of bringing together practitioners and academics who have mostly been working separately in these domains, with the aim of building networks that lead to joint efforts so that communications around the different topic areas can be addressed together.

In addition to the nine seminars, some of the participants were interviewed to find out more about the future of communications surrounding consumers’ food choices. 24 participants from academia, industry and government agencies were interviewed in semi-structured group interviews over the phone. A full report on the findings will be released in the near future.

What we’ve learnt

To communicate more effectively across the three areas, the below topics were highlighted:

  • To eat healthily with minimum food waste, the messaging should focus on: how to effectively shop; how to cook and preserve food; frozen vegetables are healthy to eat; helping people plan for smaller portions
  • To eat healthy and safe food, the communications should be on: how to safely prepare food at home, and how long food can be kept for if it is prepared in advance
  • To eat safe food with minimum food waste, the immediate concentration should be on: date labels, and also how long to keep leftovers and frozen food.

Progress needs to be made with how and what we communicate. To do this:

  • Communications should be clear and consistent across topic areas, so not contradictory to each other
  • Consumers should be involved in the development of communications. This ensures that the consumers’ preferred language is used, rather than a choice of words the experts assume will be understood and effective. It also means socio-economic factors are more likely to be addressed too
  • Communicators should collaborate with the media to prevent inaccuracies
  • Communicators should also collaborate with industry and policy makers to develop communications from farm to fork (eg the food system from initial production to reaching the consumer’s table)
  • The effectiveness of the communications must be evaluated before they are disseminated, using both qualitative and quantitative methods. Without this evaluation, communicators run the risk of broadcasting messages that are not informative or clear, which as well as wasting time and not achieving the desired effect, could also result in losing consumer trust.

In addition to traditional interventions, newer strategies should be incorporated, including:

All of the above possible interventions would need to be evaluated for their effectiveness.

Going forward

Although the seminar series has now come to an end, the project leaders hope to continue the growth of this important interdisciplinary network through the Sadler Seminar Series (a University of Leeds initiative supported by co-funding from the N8 for colleagues from the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures).

The project investigators have proposed an ongoing seminar series across the eight universities within the N8 project, which will align and link the three core themes of the N8 AgriFood programme - food production, supply and consumption.

This Sadler Series will consider the value of food in a series of seminars starting in winter 2017 at the University of Leeds. The aim of the series is to continue the vital work already established by the ESRC food seminars, encouraging people from a range of backgrounds to work together in an interdisciplinary manner, listening to each other’s messages and starting to develop effective communications using the same language.

If you would like to suggest a theme, get involved with the new seminar series or be added to the mailing list, please email Elizabeth Liversedge (e.liversedge@leeds.ac.uk). A call for topics and speakers will be announced in the near future.

PDFs and videos of the presentations made at the final event on 12 September are available to view on the project website.

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