French Beans and Food Scares: Culture and Commerce in an Anxious Age

French Beans and Food Scares: Culture and Commerce in an Anxious Age

French Beans and Food Scares: Culture and Commerce in an Anxious Age

French Beans and Food Scares: Culture and Commerce in an Anxious Age

Synopsis

From mad cows to McDonaldization to genetically modified maize, European food scares and controversies at the turn of the millennium provoked anxieties about the perils hidden in an increasingly industrialized, internationalized food supply. These food fears have cast a shadow as long asAfrica, where farmers struggle to meet European demand for the certifiably clean green bean. But the trade in fresh foods between Africa and Europe is hardly uniform. Britain and France still do business mostly with their former colonies, in ways that differ as dramatically as their nationalcuisines. The British buy their "baby veg" from industrial-scale farms, pre-packaged and pre-trimmed; the French, meanwhile, prefer their green beans naked, and produced by peasants. Managers and technologists coordinate the baby veg trade between Anglophone Africa and Britain, whereas anassortment of commercants and self-styled agro-entrepreneurs run the French bean trade. Globalization, then, has not erased cultural difference in the world of food and trade, but instead has stretched it to a transnational scale. French Beans and Food Scares explores the cultural economies of two "non-traditional" commodity trades between Africa and Europe--one anglophone, the other francophone--in order to show not only why they differ but also how both have felt the fall-out of the wealthy world's food scares. In a voyagethat begins in the mid-19th century and ends in the early 21st, passing by way of Paris, London, Burkina Faso and Zambia, French Beans and Food Scares illuminates the daily work of exporters, importers and other invisible intermediaries in the global fresh food economy. These intermediaries'accounts provide a unique perspective on the practical and ethical challenges of globalized food trading in an anxious age. They also show how postcolonial ties shape not only different societies' geographies of food supply, but also their very ideas about what makes food good.

Excerpt

From the time I first had the idea to write this book until I submitted the manuscript in mid-2003, mad cow disease seemed to most Americans a distant and exotic danger. Certainly the United States had a few late twentieth-century food scares: E-coli in hamburgers and apple juice; hepatitis on Guatemalan berries; scattered salmonella outbreaks. But these episodes passed quickly from the public eye, as individual companies issued apologies and recalls, and the government slapped temporary bans on suspect imports. These scares caused nothing near the level of public outrage and political controversy that followed the British government's 1996 announcement that, contrary to previous claims, the brain-eating bovine disease known as bse might actually endanger humans too. Americans, for the most part, continued to trust their own government's claim that the United States' food supply was the safest in the world. They did not demand dramatic changes in laws or food industry practices, and did not get them.

One result was that European food politics and policies in the post–mad cow era appeared, to many Americans, stranger than ever. Not even the British could be considered as allies when it came to negotiations over, say, trade in genetically modified crops. Another result was that Americans could more easily ignore the broader implications of their collective power to demand safe, highquality food. Supermarkets provided them with relatively little information about where their food came from, just as the media provided relatively little coverage of the questions raised by the mad cow crises in other countries— questions that had important consequences for the places and people featured in this book.

These were questions about how, for example, to make an increasingly complex food supply more traceable and transparent without wiping out small producers and traditional production methods; about the true costs of cheap groceries; about the ethics of supporting farmers at home versus those in former colonies; about exactly what it takes to build trust in the face of inevitable foodborne risks. All these concerns received so little attention from the American . . .

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