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2, JUNE 2004

A grim health future: food risks in the

Sydney press


Abstract Food scares and newsworthy stories about risks associated with food often receive a high
level of attention in the news media. This article examines the reporting of food risks over a recent 14-
month period in three metropolitan newspapers available to readers in Sydney. The major topic
reported over this time was the relationship between food intake and obesity, which comprised almost
half of news stories about food risks. This topic was followed in frequency by the risks associated with
primary food production and the risks from processed, restaurant or takeaway food. The article looks in
detail at how each of these topics was reported, including the discourses that were employed to give
meaning to the news stories. Much emphasis was placed upon personal responsibility for avoiding food
risks, particularly in relation to overweight. News stories suggested that Australians, and in particular,
Australian children, were facing a crisis in relation to the numbers of people over-eating and becoming
fat as a result. The overweight body was represented as grotesque, out of control, unhealthy and
unAustralian. In other news stories, various aspects of farming were presented as unnatural and thus
as rendering foodstuffs risky. Food prepared outside the home was portrayed as far more dangerous
than food prepared within the home, with an emphasis in reporting on the potential for contamination
in such foods.

Key words: risk, food risks, risk communication, the media

Controversies and issues relating to the risks of foodstuffs have received a high level of news
media attention in recent years in Australia and other western countries. This coverage has
been very important in contributing to peoples understandings about good/ safe and bad/
risky food, disseminating the views and pronouncements of experts and politicians and
constructing and contesting debates and controversies. It is unlikely, for example, that many of
the lay public would have heard about mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encepalopathy
[BSE]) or genetically modied (GM) foods if it were not for media reportage.
Such coverage may often result in changes in food consumption habits. There is evidence
from Britain, for example, that news coverage of the BSE crisis resulted in a signicant
reduction in Britons beef consumption (Caplan 2000). So too, over the past four decades or
so the emphasis on the ill-effects of eating animal fat as reported in the news media and in
public health messages has led Australians to reduce their intake of red meat, butter and full-
fat milk (Lupton 1996). Australian research investigating the ways in which people dealt with
Address correspondence to: Professor Deborah Lupton, 14 Arnold Street, Killara 2071, Australia. Tel.: (02) 9418 1610,

ISSN 13698575 print/ISSN 1469-8331 online # 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/1369857042000219751

the cholesterol controversy demonstrated the importance of the media to lay understandings as
well as the confusion that people felt in knowing whom to trust when making decisions about
cholesterol (Lupton and Chapman 1995).
The discourses, images and literary devices such as metaphor used in media language when
representing food risks have often been dramatic. In the UK, media coverage of risks such as
bacteria causing food poisoning (for example, salmonella and listeria), GM foods and BSE
have frequently evoked discourses and images drawn from horror and science ction (Brookes
1999; Fowler 1991; Nerlich et al. 1999). Metaphors of invasion, contamination, impurity,
degeneration, conspiracy and science run amok have been common in such representations.
Indeed, Fowler (1991: p. 160) refers to an hysterical style permeating the British press
reports of food poisoning in the late 1980s which drew on discourses of hazard, risk,
danger, fear and confusion and the rhetoric of quantication.
So too, issues of the local vs. global and Self vs. Other have been integral to the framing of
food risks in the European news media, which have often tended to take a very nationalistic
stance. In reporting the BSE/vCJD problem, for example, other European nations have
attempted to construct a conceptual and material cordon sanitaire around themselves against
the British contaminators (Almas 1999) while the British media have represented European
bans on their beef in a highly jingoistic fashion (Brookes 1999).
Very little research has attempted to investigate food risk reporting in the Australian news
media. This article discusses ndings from a research project that investigated the ways in
which three metropolitan newspapers available to readers in Sydney reported food risks over a
14-month period. The focus of the article is both upon the kinds of risks reported and the
manner in which they were represented, with close attention paid to the use of language and
discourse in the news texts.

The study
The entire study, designed to explore the meanings and discourses surrounding food risk
issues in the Australian context, was comprised of two parts. The rst part was an analysis of
the newspapers reporting on food risk issues and the second part involved qualitative semi-
structured interviews with people about their notions and beliefs concerning food risks. Only
the ndings from the newspaper analysis are discussed here (but see Lupton [forthcoming], for
an analysis of data from the interviews).
The media texts examined for the study included all items related to food and risk that I
collected from three metropolitan daily newspapers between 1 January 2002 and 28 February
2003. Two of these, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph, are the major
newspapers published in Sydney. As such, they are primarily directed to a Sydney readership
and, to a lesser extent, residents of the state of New South Wales living outside Sydney. The
third newspaper included in the study, the Australian, is Australias only national daily
newspaper directed at a general audience (the Australian Financial Review is also national but
has a far more specialised readership). The Sunday or weekend editions of these newspapers
were also examined: namely the Weekend Australian, the Sun Herald and the Sunday Telegraph.
As a national newspaper the Australian has a broader focus than the Sydney Morning Herald
and the Daily Telegraph. However, given that Sydney is Australias largest city and New South
Wales its most highly populated state, the Australian newspaper does include many news items
about them. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian are both broadsheets, catering for a
readership that is highly educated and of high socioeconomic advantage, and the Daily
Telegraph is a tabloid publication, directed at a larger and broader readership that is somewhat
less educated and less socioeconomically advantaged. There are many stylistic differences
between the broadsheets and the tabloid newspaper, with the latter running much briefer and

less detailed articles and more sensationalist and larger headlines, and giving over more space
to photographs. Unlike in countries such as the UK, however, where the political orientations
taken by newspaper editorships are often easily discernible from the content and tenor of
reporting, these and other Australian newspapers do not tend to consistently take a particular
political stance.
During the study period, I perused each daily issue of these newspapers and clipped out and
led any item which mentioned a risk, danger or hazard related to food consumption,
including feature articles, brief reports, letters to the editor, visual representations such as
photographs, and editorials. The particular time period was chosen because it preceded and
overlapped with the interviews undertaken for part two of the study. As such, the press analysis
served to set the context for the interviews, acting as an indicator of which issues preoccupied
these major newspapers at that time and were therefore likely to have come to the attention of
the interviewees. The press analysis also stands alone as a means of identifying which topics,
meanings, representations and discourses about food risks were receiving attention in a public
At the end of the study period I carried out a detailed content analysis, focusing
predominantly on the discursive and visual imagery features of the news items. For the
purpose of the analysis, each news text was closely read for its content and use of language and
image and coded into a topic category. The texts were examined for the ways in which words,
phrases and images were employed to create meaning. Across the texts, patterns of
representation, or discourses, were identied. The analysis addressed the following research
questions: What topics and themes were prominent? What discourses, images and other
cultural conceptual devices did the newspapers rely upon to make assertions about which foods
are dangerous to consume? Who did the newspapers single out as responsible for food risks?

Overview of ndings
Over the 14-month study period, a total of 371 news items, or an average of 26.5 items per
month, were published in the newspapers examined. Not unexpectedly, given their stylistic
differences noted above, the broadsheets published a greater number of articles which were
longer and more detailed compared with those appearing in the tabloid, which focused on
reporting food risks using large headlines, photographs and only small written accounts. Far
more information, with greater detail, was provided for readers of the broadsheets, therefore,
than for those of the tabloid.
Table 1 shows the topical categories that received attention during this the study period.
As is evident from Table 1, issues concerning the overweight and obesity caused by excess
food consumption or an unbalanced diet received by far the highest proportion of the news
items appearing on food and risk. Almost half (47%) of the total articles collected discussed
these issues, many of which were feature or front-page stories and accompanied by large
photographs. Within this topical category, the problem of overweight or obesity in Australian
children accounted for half of the articles, followed by general issues related to obesity and
overweight in Australia and other western countries, fast food litigation in the USA involving
obese people suing organisations such as McDonalds for serving food high in fat and sugar,
and the relationship of a diet rich in carbohydrates with a high glycaemic index (GI) with
overweight problems.
The second and third most common topical categories, although well behind that of obesity,
were the risks associated with primary food production (18%) and the risks (other than obesity
or overweight) associated with processed, restaurant or takeaway foods (16%). Within the
topic of the risks associated with primary food production, the use of pesticides or fertilisers
was the most common subtopic, followed by those posed by GM foods and BSE respectively.

Table 1. Major topics about food and risk in the Sydney press, January 2002 to February 2003

Topic %

Overweight and obesity (total) 47

in children 23
in adults 15
fast food litigation 5
carbohydrates/high GI 4
Risks associated with primary food production (total) 18
use of pesticides/fertilisers 7
GM foods 5
mad cow disease (BSE) 4
other 2
Risks from processed, restaurant or takeaway foods (total) 16
bacterial contamination/food poisoning 9
other contaminants/additives 5
other 2
Food allergies 4
Risks related to drinking milk 3
Acrylamide and cancer risk 2
Other (assorted topics) 10
Total 100 (n = 371)

Within the topic of the risks associated with processed foods etc, the subtopic of the risks posed
by bacterial contamination or food poisoning was uppermost, followed by that of the risks of
other contaminants or additives such as chemicals or foreign objects.
Other topics which attracted some attention, although very little compared to the topics
named above, were the risks posed by food allergies (4%), consuming milk (3%) and
acrylamide1 (2%). Miscellaneous topics which attracted three or fewer articles and did not t
into any of the above topical categories comprised 10% of the total articles. Due to space
restrictions, none of these minor topical categories is analysed here.
Undertaking a content analysis of the major topics and their prevalence is useful to indicate
what topics received attention, but does little to reveal the meanings conveyed in the articles.
To further explore this aspect, each major topical and subtopical category is discussed in
detailed below with a focus on their discursive features.

Overweight and obesity

In children
The growing numbers of Australian children becoming overweight or obese was a source of
great concern in the press accounts, inspiring several editorials and many feature articles. As
noted above, these articles comprised almost half of all the articles published concerning
overweight and obesity. Articles often used extreme and alarming language to underline what
was regarded to be a major health problem. The use of words and phrases such as attack,
number one killer, damage, grim health future and time bomb in the news stories
bestowed meanings of a grave threat to young Australians health. Statements such as Many, if
not most, of our children are carrying too much fat for their best health (Sydney Morning

1. According to news accounts, acrylamide is a chemical that had been identied in high-starch foods that had
been cooked at a high temperature. In some animal research it had been linked to gene mutations leading to
cancer and damage to the central nervous system.

Herald, 10 October 2002) and referring to the epidemic of childhood obesity (Sydney Morning
Herald, 12 July 2002) were common. Quantication rhetoric was frequently used, with
alarming statistics frequently employed to underline the perceived health threat of Australias
young people, as in the following: Since 1985 the numbers of obese and overweight children
in Australia have doubled . . . One child in four is overweight and one in 20 obese (Sydney
Morning Herald, 6 April 2002).
In addition to these general warnings, the more specic health ramications of overweight
were frequently referred to in the news texts, including:

early onset of non-insulin dependent diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol
levels, which have links to heart disease. Psychologically there are pitfalls too, with evi-
dence that overweight children suffer low self-esteem because they are often the subject
of taunts and, as a result, can struggle in school. (Australian, 2 February 2002)

As a headline in the Sun Herald put it: Its No Fun Being a Teenage Tubby (8 September
A major discourse in these articles focused on the implications for the future should
children become overweight and remain so. One example is the rst paragraph of a large front-
page story in the Sydney Morning Herald headlined Children Face Health Time Bomb (28
June 2002), which warned that: Australian children are facing a grim health future caused by
their high-energy diets and low-energy lifestyles.
As the quotation above demonstrates, reasons given in the news stories for the rise in
the incidence of overweight and obesity focused overwhelmingly on lifestyle factors.
Parents were particularly singled out as responsible for controlling such factors. A
Childhood Obesity Summit, sponsored by the NSW Government and held over 3 days
in September 2002, was the source of many headlines during that week, as well as
inspiring editorials in each of the newspapers. Most of the news items, in addition to
focusing on the alarming statistics of growing numbers of overweight and obese
children, emphasised parental responsibility for these statistics. For example, an editorial
published in the Daily Telegraph, headlined Healthy Eating Begins at Home (10
September 2002) placed the blame for childhood obesity squarely on parents shoulders.
According to the writer, It is the responsibility of parents to ensure that their children
have a sensible diet and proper levels of nutrition. Sadlyas statistics showit is a
responsibility many are neglecting.
A secondary emphasis in the news stories was on schools role, in particular the quality of
food available at school canteens and the education schools could offer their students about
healthy diets. As one professor of health sciences was quoted as saying; In some ways it is the
parent who has more inuence, but schools are integral (Australian, 2 February 2002). There
was also some focus in the articles on other broader structural reasons related to food
advertising and sale for the growing problem of childhood obesity. Several articles in July 2002
focused on research linking advertising for junk food in childrens television programmes
with the rising incidence of obesity, including headlines such as Children Fed An Unhealthy
Diet Of Ads (Daily Telegraph, 22 July 2002). Other articles followed this up later in the year,
when the Summit drew attention to the role of television advertising in rendering foods high in
fat and sugar attractive to young children. The role played by fast-food purveyors was also
highlighted in some articles, such as that published in the Sun Herald (13 October 2002) which
discussed a plan to be proposed to the NSW Government to end cheap deals on super-sized
meals. It was headlined: Fast Food Under Fire: Super-size Meal Deals Squeezed to Help Kids
Get Fitter, Not Fatter.

In terms of visual imagery, articles about obesity in children were often illustrated by
photographs of the type of foods that were frowned upon as unhealthy and inducing
overweight by experts. These included a front-page colour photo of an archetypal childish treat
replete with sugar and fat: a pink iced doughnut decorated with sprinkles and sweets (Sydney
Morning Herald, 15 April 2002). Another image was that portrayed in a huge colour photo that
covered almost the entire front page of the Sun Herald (26 May, 2002). It showed a close-up of
a young girls laughing face in prole as she inserted a french fry into her mouth with one hand
while the other clutched a bag full of the snacks. Both images represented the tempting nature
of such unhealthy treats to children. Other typical images used were photographs of overweight
children, some of whom were shown consuming junk food or soft drinks, demonstrating both
the body type that was the focal point of anxiety and the behaviours that were believed to lead
to developing this body.
In summary, therefore, the tenor of news items on child overweight and obesity was that of
heightened concern, including both alarm about Australian childrens current health status
and fear of what the future may hold in terms of Australians health as these fat children grew
into fat adults. Overweight and obesity in children were portrayed as due to childrens poor
diets (in concert with lack of exercise), including their over consumption of high fat and high
sugar foods, with junk or fast foods particularly singled out as culprits. As such, news items
promoted the viewpoint that individuals lifestyle choices were directly associated with
overweight, and were therefore amenable to change. Children themselves, however, were not
portrayed as personally responsible for their lifestyle choices. Rather, their parents were
identied as having primary responsibility for their childrens weight and health, followed in
more secondary roles by schools, advertisers and fast-food purveyors.

In adults
In their use of language and tone, the articles reporting on general issues to do with obesity
and overweight problems in adults (15% of the total food risk articles) were similar to
those concerning childhood obesity. The vast majority of these news stories concerned the
growing incidence of these problems, and their associated health risks, in the general
Australian population. Alarming statistics were again quoted to construct a sense of
foreboding. Many articles focused on the news that Australians were becoming fatter than
ever before, almost rivalling the USA in the proportion of adults dened as overweight or
obese. Writers acted as prophets of doom, citing such statistics as: Sixty per cent of the
Australian population aged over 25 is now classied as overweight . . . Health insurance
premiums will keep rising even for healthy, t people because the huge number of the
overweight will place heavy demands on health care (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January
2003) and Being obese when you are 40 years old takes up to 7 years off your life (Daily
Telegraph, 8 January 2003).
The visual imagery in many of these articles was startling and often grotesque. They
commonly featured such images as people greedily stufng foods such as french fries and
hamburgers into their mouths, and obese people, often semi-naked in swimming suits, with
their rolls of fat in evidence. So too, some of the verbal descriptions of overweight Australians
dwelt on the freak factor of fatness. The following editorial about the growing numbers of fat
adults published in the Sydney Morning Herald (3 January 2003) is one example:

Bloated blokes, bellies spilling over elastic waistbands and T-shirts swelling like spinna-
kers. And who persuaded all those well-upholstered women that the midriff is best al-
fresco? Or that they would never be noticed as they crouched in the surf, shaking
themselves back into cossies [swimsuits] a size or three too small?

According to the press accounts, the presence of such bodies contravened the valued archetype
of the Australian body as t, lean, healthy and physically active, suntanned from participating
in outdoor sports such as swimming and surng, replacing it with the unfamiliar gure of the
unt and grossly fat Australian body:

The image of the bronzed, lean, sports-loving Aussie has long been an integral part of
our national identity, alongside our view of our landscape as vast, open spaces and un-
spoilt wilderness. But the image of the t and healthy Australian increasingly has little
basis in reality, with the nation now laying claim to the second highest obesity rate in
the world behind the United States. (Australian, 4 February 2002)

This contrast in archetypes was dramatically visually represented in a Sunday Telegraph article
(22 December 2002) which used half an entire page to print a photograph showing a back view
of a surf lifesaver standing at the beach gazing out to sea. His body, attired only in a pair of tiny
swimming briefs, is trim and muscular, representing the ideal archetype of Australian health,
vigor and tness. On the following page, the article continued, with a smaller photograph
(taking up about one-third of the page) showing an obese man with a very large, pendulous
belly, also dressed only in a swimming costume, running along the beach after two young boys
(the suggestion being that he is their father and has little hope of keeping up with his sons
because of his bulk). The headline of the article read: For a Century, Weve Portrayed
Ourselves as a Healthy Nation. Now Our Bronzed Self-image is Under Threat from an
Epidemic of Obesity.
As was the case in the press accounts of childhood obesity, there was an emphasis on
overconsumption of snack, fast or junk foods (i.e. processed foods high in fat or sugar or
both) in articles about overweight and obesity in Australians. Many articles made reference
to research which demonstrated that bargain meals advertised by fast food purveyors, in
which little extra money could be spent to buy much more food, was a contributor to
overeating: Health Risk in Bargain Foods: Value Deals Making Us Fat (Sunday Telegraph, 6
October 2002). The average Australian, it was claimed, was eating too much of these foods
and becoming fat as a result. Statistics such as In a lifetime, the average Australian will
consume 800 kg of chocolate and 5500 litres of soft drink (Sun Herald, 3 March 2002)
vividly drew attention to the enthusiastic consumption of such foods by Australians.
Headlines such as Scientists Say We Are Addicted to Fat (Sunday Telegraph, 2 February
2003) and Food Portions BulgingAs Are Bellies (Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January
2003) suggested that Australians had very little willpower to eschew junk and other
unhealthy foods.
In articles on overweight and obesity among Australians, therefore, the emphasis was almost
entirely upon personal responsibility for these problems. Those who allowed themselves to
become fat did so because they were unable to control their gluttonous appetite for unhealthy
foods. Little mention was made of broader structural reasons for peoples propensity to eat
high-fat or high-sugar foods, such as economic disadvantage (such foods are often signicantly
less expensive than healthy foods) and the comparative availability of healthy foods compared
with unhealthy foods when eating away from the home. The overweight body was portrayed,
both in words and images, as disgusting and unAustralian, in its grotesque contravention of
the slimness and physical tness that are such privileged values in Australian culture.

Fast food litigation

The third-ranked subtopic (5% of the total food risk articles) under the rubric of obesity was
that concerning the actions of people in the USA in suing major fast food chains, including

McDonalds, KFC, Burger King and Wendys, on the grounds that their food had contributed
to the plaintiffs obesity and related health problems. Their argument pivoted on their claim
that they did not understand that the food served at such establishments was high in fat and
sugar and thus likely to lead to overweight if eaten often.
This issue again turned the spotlight onto fast food as a contributor to the growing numbers
of overweight and obese people in the countries such as the USA and Australia. So too did the
assertion by a Senator in the Australian Parliament that fast food packaging should bear clear
health warnings similar to those on cigarette packets, inspiring such headlines as: Warning:
This Burger May Harm Your Health (Daily Telegraph, 21 June 2002). Further, analogies were
made in several articles on the fast food litigation comparing this litigation with that by
plaintiffs seeking damages from tobacco companies for threatening their health. One American
expert who has advocated taxing fatty foods, was quoted as saying that he saw no difference
between Ronald McDonald and Joe Camel [a cartoon image used in advertising for Camel
cigarettes] (Australian, 27 July 2002).
The dominant discourses in these articles, thus, were twofold: fast food leads to obesity, and
purveyors of fast food are responsible for individuals weight problems. Here the emphasis is
drawn away from individual responsibility for ones body weight that was evident in the
majority of articles about overweight. Ignorance of what substances are contained in fast foods
was portrayed as the dominant cause of overweight resulting from the over-consumption of
such foods. The comparison of fast food consumption with the now highly stigmatised
behaviour of cigarette smoking reinforced the notion that, as with tobacco use, education
could lead to the avoidance of the risky behaviour, and also that over-consumption of such
foods was as detrimental to ones health as is smoking tobacco.

High carbohydrate or high GI diets

Another subtopic under the rubric of obesity was that of the link between a diet containing a
high proportion of carbohydrates and overweight and obesity, with the associated problems of
heart disease, insulin resistance and diabetes (4% of the total food risk articles). More
specically, in some articles, the GI (glycaemic index) of carbohydrates was discussed and it
was noted that foods with a high GI were more likely to lead to these health problems than
those with a low GI because they are metabolised quickly, resulting in surges in blood sugar
levels which in turn lead to increased insulin production, and thus to more fat being stored in
body tissues.
It was observed in several articles that although the lay population had been advised for years
to pursue a low-fat and high-carbohydrate diet for the sake of their health, and many low-fat
products had become available, people in western societies were continuing to gain weight.
Writers claimed that continuing intake of large amounts of carbohydrates, particularly bread,
pasta, potatoes and rice, was leading to this increase in weight. Readers were subsequently
advised to adopt diets including fewer carbohydrates, or in some articles on GI indices, fewer
high GI foods and more low GI foods. Some articles took this advice rather far and in a
hyperbolic manner, as in the feature article published in the Australians weekend magazine
(Weekend Australian, 7 September 2002). Illustrating the front cover and advertising the story
was a photograph of a white dinner plate with two eggs, a fried tomato and slices of bacon
grouped together to make an image of a happy face. The headline read: Eat Fat and Be
Happy: The New Diet Revolution.
Mention was made in many articles of the Zone Diet and Atkins Diet as exemplars of diets
which proposed a low carbohydrate and high protein intake. These articles were commonly
lengthy and detailed feature pieces, making reference to celebrities such as Jennifer Aniston,
Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones who had adopted such diets and achieved slim gures

as a result. These diets, reports suggested, did seem to be effective for losing weight, but it was
also noted that dieticians disagreed as to their nutritional value. Those who dissented from
such diets as the Atkins diet, for example, argued that embarking on such eating habits was
itself risky to health, as it involved relatively high levels of saturated fat intake and high levels of
protein, was decient in the nutrients gained from carbohydrates and could lead to various
health problems such as heart disease.
As these items illustrate, confusing information about what components should be present
in a healthy diet was presented. Some articles focused on the message, drawn primarily from
the views of Atkins, that low-fat diets were ineffective for weight loss and good health, and that
high protein and high fat diets were better. Others were more detailed, putting forward the
information that it depended on what kind of carbohydrates were consumed (low or high GI)
and what kinds of fats (saturated, monosaturated or polyunsaturated). In many cases,
however, such detailed and more temperate information came later in a feature article,
following several paragraphs of less equivocal statements.

Risks associated with primary food production

Use of pesticides/fertilisers
Most of the articles in this topic category (7% of the total food risk articles) appeared in the
Sydney Morning Herald as part of a special series that the newspaper conducted over several
days in May 2002 on the use of contaminated fertilisers in Australian farms. Bearing the by-
line A Herald Investigation, the articles in these series were published both on the front page
and also accounted for several articles inside, including editorials. Headlines such as
Industrial Waste Sold As Fertiliser, How Industrial Waste Gets Into the Food Chain (both
6 May 2002) and Toxic Waste Imports Put Food in Danger (8 May 2002) publicised stories
recounting how Australian big businesses such as major steelworks and aluminium reneries
were disposing of their industrial waste by recycling it and converting it into fertilisers for
farms, and that toxic wastes from other countries were being shipped into Australia for the
same purpose.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald articles, such fertiliser contained potentially toxic
substances and heavy metals: Waste slag, which an analysis shows contains heavy metals
including arsenic, chromium, lead and nickel, suddenly becomes a fertilising product called
Canola Plus (6 May 2002). Follow-up stories continued into July, including items on a
proposal to import hazardous waste from Denmark for use as fertiliser and a feature article
examining the hazardous chemicals contained in food and their long-term effects. The stories
also generated ten letters to the editor over 2 days expressing disquiet at such practices.
Also in this topical category were a number of articles on the ill effects of pesticides used in
farming, which were published across the different newspapers. Most of these discussed
organic foods, comparing them favourably to non-organic foods because of the use of
pesticides in farms growing the latter.
The dominant discourses evident in this coverage focused on the use of unnatural
substances in what was considered to be a natural process: farming. Mechanical industry and
its by-products were portrayed in highly negative terms as despoiling the purity of farming
practices and products by contributing toxins. These discourses were particularly evident in
images such as that published as part of the Sydney Morning Herald special series which melded
a picture of a cow standing in a wheat eld with industrial machinery and smokestacks
billowing smoke. The emphasis in this image was the incongruity of a symbol of bucolic,
natural bountifulness (the cow) with human-made machines and their foul, polluting by-

Genetically modified (GM) foods

In Europe there has been a great deal of publicity around GM foods and a high level of
coverage of the risks involved in the news media there (Almas 1999; Wales and Mythen 2002).
This appears not to be the case in Australia, where, during the study period at least, little
coverage was given to GM foods. Of the total of articles on food risks published in the study
period, only 5% were about the possible risks posed by GM foods2. Indeed those items that
did appear tended to mention the risks of GM foods only in passing while discussing other
issues to do with GM food production or food labelling. Thus, for example, one article on a
loophole in labelling laws noted that food products have to be labelled as GM only where the
changes are evident in the nal product for sale. Only at the very end of a reasonably lengthy
piece (13 paragraphs) is the issue of risks of GM foods raised, with the quoting of a statement
made by a member of a public health advisory group that: My position is there is no evidence
genetically engineered foods are safe, because there is no evidence (Australian, 7 February
While little alarm was expressed in articles, letters to the editor were rather more polemical
in their discussion of the risks or virtues of GM foods. For example, according to one letter
writer, the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) had approved a variety of GM
corn which was not yet fully tested and found to be safe . . . Genetically engineered DNA is
notoriously unreliable and its effects are unpredictable (Sydney Morning Herald, 11 February
2002). In response, a member of ANZFA wrote in to claim that the corn and other GM foods
had been rigorously tested and that: We have no evidence whatsoever that this technology
presents any threat to consumer safety (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 February 2002).
The impression given by such items was that it remained an open question whether or not
GM foods were safe for consumption. However, letters such as these were very few in number
compared to the type of article referred to above, which placed little emphasis on the risks of

Mad cow disease/BSE and vCJD

BSE is another risk related to food which has received a great deal of attention in the European
news media, particularly in the UK, where most known cases in cattle and humans worldwide
have been identied (Brookes 1999; Brookes and Holbrook 1998; Miller 1999). The disease
has proved mediaworthy there because of several factors: its link to humans (people have
contracted vCJD [variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease], the human version of BSE, from eating
infected beef), the fact that it is caused by cattle being given feed which includes matter from
sheep (thus rendering their diet carnivorous and unnatural) and the apparent attempts of the
British government to downplay the risks to consumers of consuming British beef.
The situation has been very different in Australia, where no case of BSE has yet been
identied in cattle and the disease is not perceived as a threat to livestock. As a result, relatively
few press reports over the study period (only 4% of the total) discussed BSE or vCJD. News
items also tended to be brief accounts, occurring in the international section of the
newspapers, and therefore several pages into the newspaper. These included items about the
death toll from vCJD in the UK passing 100 and cases of BSE appearing in cattle in Italy,
Israel and Poland. There was no suggestion in such reports, however, that either BSE or vCJD
posed a risk to Australians. Indeed, it was often emphasised that Australians have little to fear

2. Articles about GM foods that referred only to risks to do with GM seeds spreading to adjacent non-GM
crops were not included in the study because they did not directly deal with the risks to humans of consuming
GM foods.

from potentially BSE-infected sheep products and Australia has never had a case of BSE and
did not have the related disease, scrapie, in sheep (The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 January
2002). In fact several news stories claimed that BSE was a boon to the Australian beef
industry, because countries such as Japan, which had become wary of European beef, were
now turning to Australia to source their beef.
The discourses on BSE, therefore, overwhelmingly portrayed the risk as external to
Australia. As in media reports in European countries other than the UK in the 1990s (Almas
1999), BSE was portrayed as a problem of Other rather than Self. By virtue of its independent
cattle industry and distance from Europe, Australia was represented as a zone of safety, with its
cordon sanitare yet to be breached by the risk posed by infection.

Risks from processed, restaurant or takeaway foods

Bacterial contamination/food poisoning
The greatest number of articles within the broad category of risks from processed, restaurant
or takeaway foods (9% of the total food risk articles) concerned the hazards posed by bacterial
contamination and food poisoning in such foods. Subtopics included accounts of food
poisoning outbreaks in Australia and other countries such as China, Argentina, Chile and
There were four Australian food poisoning outbreaks causing gastroenteritis reported during
the study period. Although two of these outbreaks took place in Melbourne, they attracted
attention from the Sydney press because they involved illness in hundreds of people and the
death of a 49-year-old man in one of the outbreaks. The January 2003 outbreak, which killed
the man and affected almost 200 other customers, was caused by pork rolls sold by a
Vietnamese restaurant. The March 2002 outbreak, affecting over 250 people, involved rice
served at a large function at a Melbourne mosque. Reports on this incident included quotes
from food experts warning about the dangers of reheating cooked rice. Headlines such as One
Dead Amid Food Poisoning Scare (Sydney Morning Herald, 16 January 2003) and Mosque
Lunch Poisons Hundreds (Australian, 26 March 2002) appeared.
A research report about attitudes to hygiene in food manufacturers, restaurants, cafes,
schools, childcare centres and hospitals also provoked eye-catching headlines and articles in all
three newspapers. The report, by the federal government, found that many employees at such
places were not taught how to handle or store food correctly. Headlines such as Would You
Like Flies with That? (Australian, 1 February 2002) and Why Dining Out Can Be a Dirty
Habit (Daily Telegraph, 1 February 2002) drew attention to the ndings. Other stories in this
category included brief reports of various different food products that had been recalled
because bacterial contamination had been discovered in them. These included nutritional
supplement powder imported from the US and Australian-made ham and canned toddler
The meanings conveyed in these reports emphasised the risky nature of foods prepared and
eaten outside the home. The use of such words as dirty and poison, particularly in
headlines, served to emphasise the potential for the contamination of food that one does not
prepare oneself at home.

Other contaminants/additives
Reports about other contaminants and potentially hazardous additives in processed, restaurant
or takeaway foods comprised 5% of the total food risk stories. These included stories
concerning ndings that there had been a record number of food recalls the previous year for

contaminated foods with such substances as glass fragments, lead, industrial lubricants, metal
fragments and rubber: Extra Nasties Force Record Food Recalls (Australian, 11 December
2002). Several articles were published on the topic of a proposed bill before the NSW
Parliament stating that restaurants must declare whether they had added monosodium
glutamate to their food because of the risk of allergic response on the part of those who were
susceptible but did not know that monosodium glutamate was in the food. Another topic
concerned a new system of mandatory food labelling for manufactured foods, brought in at the
end of 2002, which, according to the articles, would allow consumers to determine which
additives foods may contain and what the proportion of saturated fats, salt, sugars and so on
they had. According to one article, this new detailed information could prevent 400 Australian
deaths next year by reducing the risk of fatality from diet-related disease (Daily Telegraph, 16
November 2002). In these articles, thus, food prepared or manufactured outside the home was
again associated with dirt and other contaminating foreign materials, or else with risky
substances such as monosodium glutamate, other additives, saturated fats, salt and sugars.

During the study period, the overwhelming emphasis of news stories reporting food risk issues
was on the link between eating inappropriate foods and overweight and obesity and their
associated health risks, particularly in Australian children. High fat and sugary foods, often
described as junk food or fast food, were given particular attention as risky foods in relation
to overweight and obesity. Secondary to this preoccupation were the dangers of additives or
chemicals that had been applied to foods on farms or in the processing or preparation stages,
or the risk of bacterial contamination in pre-prepared or processed foods. In terms of
contamination, the hazards of foods prepared outside the home received far more attention
than the dangers associated with those prepared at home.
The discourses that received expression in the news accounts to a large extent focused on
personal responsibility for maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding overweight, or, in the case
of children, parental responsibility for their dietary choices. The overweight body was
represented as grotesque, prone to disease, and unAustralian in contravening the archetype
of the t, muscular and slim body that could proudly be displayed at the beach. The fat childs
body was additionally portrayed as a timebomb in harbouring the potential for disease when
the child grew into an adult.
In these press accounts, therefore, various notions and discourses intertwined. Ideas of what
constitutes the ideal body, and in opposition to this, the reviled body, were incorporated with
notions of national identity and of the Australian body. There was a particular concern about
what the Australian childs body might become in the future, when grown to adulthood. The
discourse of personal responsibility underlined the notion that we are indeed what we eat,
and that greater control over ones body could only be achieved through control over ones
These discourses are expressed in a broader cultural context in which Australians, and other
peoples of western nations, are constantly exhorted by medical and public health authorities to
take responsibility for their health, where the slim body is idealised both in aesthetic terms and
health terms, and where self-discipline and control over ones body are valued. In contrast, the
grotesque, overweight body, with its layers of fat, is a reviled gure, viewed as the literal
embodiment of greed and lack of self-control (Bordo 1990; Crawford 1984; Heywood 1996;
Lupton 1995, 1996; Saltonstall 1993; Schwartz 1986).
Other discourses that predominated included those that represented various chemicals
found in fertilisers and pesticides as unnatural and emphasised the dirt or poison that
could lurk in foods processed or prepared outside the home. Food intake is always risky

because it involves taking a foreign substance into the body and making it part of ones bodily
self. Hence the common response of neophobia, or fear of new foods (Falk 1991). The ever-
threatening disgust that may be generated from anxieties about the cleanliness of food
counters the pleasure that may be found in eating. Cultural rules and assumptions about what
is dirty and what is clean, and therefore what is contaminated and inedible and what is
pure and edible, inuence such emotional responses to food (Douglas 2000/1966; Falk 1991;
Fischler 1988; Lupton 1996). Foods processed or prepared outside the home are viewed as
particularly suspect because people have so little knowledge of or control over how they are
prepared, and thus they may acquire some mysterious, alien quality (Fischler 1980: p. 945).
Food contamination stories, therefore, are newsworthy because they emphasise how little
control people have over the content of many of the foods they eat. Further, because the
natural is a privileged value against its binary opposition the articial (Coward 1989;
Hamilton et al. 1995; Lupton 1996; Sellerberg 1991), news stories about chemical additives,
fertilisers, pesticides, GM foods and such phenomena as BSE are newsworthy in drawing upon
anxieties about the ways in which pure and natural foodstuffs are contaminated by the
addition of articial, and thus dirty, substances.
It is not surprising, therefore, that food risks receive a high degree of attention, often with a
very dramatic or alarming tenor, in the press and other news media. The discourses that give
meaning to media accounts of food risks are central to ideas about self, health and
embodiment. They not only arouse deep fears concerning the integrity of ones bodily
boundaries and that which is taken into the body, but also about the capacity of the self/body to
exert self-discipline and self-control in the project for the ideal body.

The research project upon which this article draws was funded by an Australian Research
Council Discovery Grant awarded to the author.

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