The Suppression of Food Controversies By Consumers And Media
Advocates seeking to persuade people to stop eating meat face challenges from many fronts. One obvious opponent is the meat production industry. But advocates must also contend with generally unfavorable media as well as consumers who do not want to change their eating habits. This paper, published in Sociologia Ruralis, explores “suppressive synergy.” This is the concept that all three of these groups—the meat industry, mass media, and consumers—jointly contribute to helping people maintain distance between meat production practices and meat consumption. The author conducted data analyses of media trends as well as focus groups in which participants discussed their meat-eating habits and beliefs.
The author begins the article by elaborating on the concept of suppressive synergy. He notes that both spatial-temporal (geographic) and cognitive-effective (social) means create distance between meat production and meat consumption. And he notes that both producers and consumers have a hand in creating and maintaining these distances. He clarifies that the relationship is not equal. This is because producers are more organized and powerful than consumers, particularly in the U.S. But consumers also play a part when they blindly accept the food production system, selectively ignore food safety issues, and take for granted the assumption that eating meat is standard practice.
The author shows that the mass media also help to create and maintain this distance by “circulating and reproducing dominant discourses.” He highlights this by analyzing more than 19,000 articles that ran in the New York Times from 1981 to 2013. He sought keywords related to meat production and animals. His findings show that only “a small proportion of meat-related articles emphasize social justice concerns, namely, environment, labor, animal treatment, and vegetarianism.” His findings also show there are far more articles on nutrition and food safety, and even more on “issues pertaining to cuisine and economy,” than on issues connected to meat eating. As suggested by a focus group participant, this fragmented and limited media coverage of animal welfare and social justice issues leads many people to believe any issues are isolated incidents. People can think such incidents are “unusual events rather than symptoms of broader problems.”
Next, the author discusses consumer reactions to meat controversies (an issue further explored in a separate article). Based on focus group responses, he details three ways in which consumers maintain their eating habits in the face of food crises. These are as follows: by believing that while food crises do occur, the consumer can still trust their “go-to” companies; by feeling that consumers have no choice but to trust companies to act responsibly; and by “generalizing on the basis of personal experience that food safety problems were the result of a few bad apples.” Such reasoning indicates that “people are denied access to knowledge at the same time that they quite often express little interest in learning more about food safety practices and policies.”
The author concludes that “industry, mass media, and consumers’ everyday habits all contribute to the distancing of food controversies from everyday life.” And he also concludes that “the end result is a deeply enmeshed feedback loop.” He recommends further investigation into how suppressive synergy operates within different national and cultural contexts. And he warns that without fully exploring the ties between production and consumption, “efforts to make lasting and systemic changes in the global food system could ultimately prove to be ineffective.”
For advocates, the paper provides a useful summary of the tactics used by the meat industry, the media, and consumers to maintain the status quo in regard to meat production and consumption. It is also a good reminder of how these three groups work together. It highlights the need for advocates to direct outreach initiatives toward all three groups, preferably in conjunction, to make an impact.