An outline of the “risk society” thesis of the German social theorist Ulrich Beck is given, and some points that he has taken from food safety examples are discussed. The potential for exploring the viability and utility of the thesis, via a comparative study of historical food safety episodes is illustrated through an account and discussion of the large corned beef-associated typhoid outbreak which occurred in 1964 in Aberdeen, Scotland. The outcome of the Aberdeen affair, in terms of public and political interest in food safety, and impact on the official food safety system, is compared with the outcome and impact of the series of food safety episodes of the 1980s and 1990s. The interactions between the latter episodes and the new food movement, the proactive responses of corporate interests, and the dramatic changes in the food safety regime represented by the formation of the Food Standards Agency in Britain, are contrasted with the relative lack of impact of the Aberdeen outbreak. Despite criticisms of Beck’s thesis, this comparative study highlights, in particular, the value of his concept of “subpolitics”, and his expectation that the transition to risk society will involve the emergence of new social institutions. Such insights may help orientate epidemiologists and community health specialists who are currently active in food safety and regulation.
- ATO, Aberdeen typhoid outbreak
- BSE, bovine spongiform encephalopathy
- FSA, Food Standards Agency
- GMF, genetically modified foods
- LFC, London Food Commission
- NGOs, non-governmental organisations
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Competing interests: None declared.