During the last two chapters we have dealt extensively with aesthetic responses to food. However, just as aesthetic aspects of food mediate between people and foodstuffs, so there is a strongly marked moral and ethical dimension to food culture. We have already touched upon this in our discussions of how global food provisioning disadvantages people in the developing world, how domestic food preparation disadvantages women and how certain foodstuffs are distasteful for particular social groups. In this chapter we explore further the ethical dimensions of both consumption and non-consumption, focusing on the example of vegetarianism.
Contemporary ethical consumption is often closely related to heightened perceptions of the risks attached to food. Recent years have seen an accelerated sense of panic as fresh anxieties appear to proliferate. Amongst the most conspicuous scares in the UK have been those concerning salmonella in eggs, listeria in cheese, meat and ice cream, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopothy (BSE, or 'mad cow disease') in beef, and genetically modified foods. In this chapter we consider these high-profile examples in relation to theories of moral panics and their representation in the news media. However, we also consider how concerns about less spectacular issues such as organicism and nutrition need to be understood within wider cultural processes. Central to our analysis will be a critical estimation of the extent to which cultural meanings are dominated by perceptions of risk and anxiety.
What is good to eat, bad to eat, wrong to eat and impossible to eat are, therefore, profoundly cultural questions. In dealing with the nature of food taboos, Mary Douglas has proposed that such phenomena establish cultural boundaries, thereby providing an important means by which a culture maintains or polices its integrity. 'Cultural intolerance of ambiguity', she writes, 'is expressed by avoidance, by discrimination and by pressure to conform' (Douglas, 1975:53). Beyond the established