What is a "food scandal"? | © kentoh @ Shutterstock

What is a “food scandal”?

Considerations on the difference between grievances and affairs

The term food scandal

In 1907 the term “food scandal” was used for the first time. It was part of the description of American slaughterhouses. The German media uses the term with increasing frequency:

"Food Scandal" in the press | © Dr. Sabine Bonneck
“Food Scandal” in the press | © Dr. Sabine Bonneck

This does not mean that there is an increasing number of grievances. The reason is that the media uses the terms “affair”, “case” and “scandal” more and more synonymously. Spiegel online, for example, reported on a dead frog in a pack of wine gum and called it a “food scandal”.

Actually a certain feeling for language should lead to the decision that this is not a scandal.

Characteristics of a scandal

Neu distinguishes three characteristics of scandals:

  1. Human action: Scandals can only emerge on the basis of human action (non-action). Neither animals, nor plants or things can cause scandals.
  2. Breach of taboo: This action (non-action) does violate conventions.
  3. Public: A public reaction follows the incident.

Most food-related grievances are not directly caused by human action resp. are not a breach of taboos. Very often they occur in the context of substances that are not intentionally added to foods.

In the frog-story, human action does probably play a role because the frog could hardly enter a wine gum pack without negligent behaviour of humans. However, neglient behaviour normally does not comply with breaches of taboos. And, that there was media coverage is a necessary but not a sufficient precondition for scandal.

Differentiation between grievances and scandals

It is of utmost importance to know the reasons for grievances because otherwise we cannot put them to an end. How can it happen that a frog enters a wine gum pack? At one point in the production a mistake must have happened and it is obvious that the bug must be removed. Because, if more incidents like this are going to happen, the company will have a lot of media coverage but it will not sell wine gum anymore.

But what, if the bug cannot be removed? Maybe the management made the decision to save money. In this case, an improvement of the production might not be possible. Maybe the management does not take action because the people are lazy or are simply looking after different interests. There are many reasons why problems can last very long or can even not be removed, and at this point politicals scandals can emerge. Still using the example of the wine gum company, a scandal could emerge if the food control bodies see the bug but do not intervene…

Spiegel online did just report that a dead frog was found in a wine gum pack. The rest of the story is purely fictional to illustrate the fact that “food scandals” often comprise a political dimension. And it is not the food but the political context that creates the scandal.

Dr. Sabine Bonneck