Below you will find a list of key concepts and themes that have emerged from our review of the academic and policy literature, and from our initial interviews with actors from across the food sector. The relationships between these concepts are complex in practice, and there are overlaps, tensions and synergies among them. These nested lists group them into clusters intended both to be analytically useful and also to reflect our observations to date of the ways that food system actors discuss and categorize anticipation.
The term anticipation describes any attempt to make uncertain futures present and actionable. There are various definitions, schema and categorisations that attempt to create more precise classifications of anticipatory practices. The broad set of categories that we use here are ‘user categories’: they reflect the ways in which our research participants understand and distinguish types of anticipation. Risk and risk management is the dominant form of anticipation and focuses on pre-emptive action. Preparedness and resilience focuses more on the ability to manage and recover from high impact events. Horizon Scanning is concerned with detecting emerging threats and possibilities. The first two of these categories each have several supporting or closely related concepts.
The UK food system faces a multitude of potential problems. From outbreaks of food-borne illness to extreme weather events, and from criminal activity to industrial accidents, there seems to be an endless variety of potential crises and emergencies to prepare for. How are businesses, government agencies and civil society to decide what action to take in the face of this profusion of dangers? How might they identify the most serious or urgent of these threats and prioritise the most efficient countermeasures?
Risk assessment and risk management techniques represent one particular response to this conundrum. These techniques seek to guide individuals and organisations towards a measured choice of a course of action by determining and weighing up the relative ‘level of risk’ posed by each feared event – a function of the probability that it will come about and the severity of the consequences that will ensue if it does occur. In so doing, risk assessment and management processes help their users to rank the importance of the dangers they face; to prioritise the most likely and the most damaging for attention and to judge which management measures are proportionate to the level of risk posed by each hazard.
Risk assessment and risk management techniques have become ubiquitous throughout the food system. They inform decisions about matters as different as the approval of ingredient suppliers and the frequency of food safety inspections, and they govern organisations’ preparations for dangers ranging from adulteration of their products to cyber attacks and the loss of key production facilities. In the process, they give form and assign differing levels of significance to the threats faced by the food system – identifying some as major risks which demand heavy investment in mitigation measures and others as being too insignificant or unlikely to require action.
Assurance is a way of managing risks; it is a guarantee that certain conditions have been met and will continue to be met. In relation to food this might include: welfare and hygiene standards, specified origins for ingredients, absence of certain substances, adherence to specified standards of conduct, or the use of particular production practices in order to achieve environmental or socioeconomic goals. Producing assurance usually requires some form of accounting and audit process to check that the conditions specified are being met. It is a process of quality control in the sense that it aims to mandate and stabilise certain qualities of foodstuffs – and of the individuals and organisations involved in supplying, handling and processing them. Assurance may operate between or across any actors in the food system (it is not just consumer facing) and may involve branding, third party certification, or legally binding contracts, as well as more informal promises and agreements.
When food is found to be contaminated (by pathogens, harmful substances or fraudulent ingredients) it becomes necessary to trace the route that its component foodstuffs have taken through production and processing to the point where the contamination is discovered. This allows the source and possible spread of the problem to be determined. Traceability requires that an identifier be attached the food (e.g. through animal tagging, RFID technology, genetic sampling, or use of barcodes, QR codes and printed labels) and a record of that identifier’s movements kept. This might be viewed as a form of preparedness to deal with an emergency, or as a deterrent to deliberate fraud.
Once risks have been identified and measures put in place to avoid, prevent or prepare for them, it is necessary to conduct monitoring and inspection to ensure either that the risks have not emerged or that the prescribed courses of action are being followed. Monitoring and inspection might, for example, involve taking samples of foodstuffs in order to test for pathogens or other contaminants, or conducting audits to check that risk management measures and emergency plans are in place and that personnel are properly trained.
Does food come from the source noted on the label? Are the ingredients as stated on the packet? Is meat from the animal species stated? Each of these questions is connected to a family of potential risks to consumers and companies. Verification processes are designed to confirm that food is what it is meant to be. They are a deterrent to fraud, a form of inspection for audits and part of consumer assurance. Various molecular techniques exist to verify the authenticity of foodstuffs and more are being developed. As with traceability, these may be proprietary technologies which are packaged up and marketed as unique products and services.
These terms (resilience in particular) are in increasingly common use across many sectors of industry and government, and food is no exception. Sometimes they are used interchangeably or with loose meaning – or with highly specific meanings that may not be widely agreed on. Broadly, though, preparedness means being ready to deal with a problem if and when it arises. Resilience describes the ability of a system to ‘bounce back’ to a functional state after experiencing a shock – to absorb or adapt to the pressures of extreme situations or changing circumstances. These terms describe an organisational capability to endure and to take effective action in the face of uncertainty. In practice, both relate to the development and maintenance of plans, policies and procedures that will be followed should an event occur that disrupts normal operations in some way. Resilience can be imagined and pursued at different scales. Within the food sector it can apply to the food system as a whole (at a UK or global scale), to particular businesses, supply chains or sub-sectors, or to regulators and government bodies.
Within recent memory the UK’s food system has been afflicted by disturbances ranging from animal disease outbreaks to disruptions to road haulage services and a crisis of confidence in food safety and authenticity resulting from the fraudulent substitution of meat products. The causes, impacts and public perceptions of these episodes vary widely, as does the terminology used to describe such events. For some, a suspected case of accidental contamination of foodstuffs with a harmful chemical might spark a crisis; for others it may constitute an incident, an emergency or a scare. What all of these terms have in common, however, is that they name a category of events with the potential to force either the food system as a whole or specific organisations and supply chains within it to suspend their normal functioning. They identify exceptional situations during which – for a time – the rules and certainties which usually govern the food system do not hold, and the supply of or confidence in food is in question or under threat.
One way in which organisations can attempt to improve or test their readiness to deal with an emergency is to stage an exercise. An exercise simulates an out of the ordinary situation and gives key personnel in businesses and government agencies an opportunity to practice using the procedures and tools that they have developed for such an event. Specialist consultancy firms may be hired to plan and run the exercise. An exercise is usually structured around a scenario, the details of which will not be known in advance by those participating in it. Although usually fictional, scenarios are often based on real examples of past emergencies and are carefully designed to test specific aspects of an organisation’s functions or the ability of different teams and organisations to work together in a genuine emergency. Exercises can be designed to produce an atmosphere (including emotional responses) that simulates real events. The use of exercises is increasing across all sectors, but is comparatively new to many of those operating within the food system.
In recent years policy makers and industry experts have warned repeatedly that we are entering a turbulent age in which the food system will be subjected to increasingly frequent shocks and forced to confront a multitude of novel and unexpected challenges. In such a rapidly changing and unstable world, building a resilient food system will require measures more forward-looking and proactive than the management of known risks and the rehearsal of responses to familiar categories of incidents through drills and exercises. In order to ward off crisis and catastrophe, organisations will have to anticipate potential threats before they arise – to search for weak signals and probable patterns which might hint at the nature of the problems that they could face tomorrow.
Horizon scanning techniques attempt to detect these early warning signals and, in so doing, to alert their users to issues which currently lie at the limits of foreseeability. They do not seek to predict the future with any certainty, but rather to draw attention to incipient trends and phenomena which currently remain poised on the cusp of becoming visible. The term horizon scanning is applied to a variety of tools, techniques and practices which promise insight into future trends and events over timescales ranging from a few weeks to a decade or more. If these have something in common it is that they all seek to gather together, search and analyse diverse forms of information and intelligence – from commodity prices to public health alerts, social media content and informal conversations among business contacts. Through synthesising information drawn from a variety of sources – a process requiring effective intelligence sharing – they attempt to identify links among different events, and to discern nascent patterns which would not yet be apparent from any single perspective. The identification of emerging trends or issues through horizon scanning may form an input into risk assessment and risk management processes.
Food businesses and regulators routinely scrutinise many forms of intelligence, drawn from a wide range of sources, in the hope that this will enable them to detect problematic situations as, or even before, they arise – and thus to prevent, pre-empt or at least mitigate impending crises. This process of horizon scanning relies upon linking up and integrating information resources as varied as commodity prices, social media content, alerts issued by governmental or intergovernmental agencies and informal conversations between suppliers and their customers.
These disparate pieces of information may take on significance as meaningful intelligence only when examined in relation to, and synthesised with, one other. The telltale signs of an approaching crisis may therefore go unnoticed if fragments of material which betray hints of a supply chain disruption or a malicious attack remain scattered across numerous disconnected sources – embedded in the informal expertise of individual industry insiders or confined within proprietary databases.
For this reason, a number of actors within the food system – from trade associations to regulatory bodies and technology providers – have devoted considerable effort in recent years to the improvement of intelligence sharing. Initiatives such as the establishment of ‘intelligence hubs’ and ‘safe havens’ within industry and government are intended to facilitate the conversion of local knowledge and specialist data into formats which are suitable for wider dissemination and capable of being exchanged, understood and exploited by a broader audience of users. Yet in opening up opportunities for information to move more fluidly across organisational and sectoral boundaries such schemes often also raise new questions and anxieties about the protection of intelligence sources, the validation of evidence, and the disclosure of commercially or legally sensitive data.
This second grouping of concepts is aimed at getting us outside of conventional views of organisation in the food system. We conceive of the food system through the idea of assemblages. Assemblages are not a particular type or form of relationship, but rather a way of focusing on how social collectives – consisting of diverse materials, human and nonhuman elements – are assembled and held together. An assemblage is a more or less stable process, always being made and remade. The work of assembling the food system is vast and occurs through various processes, operating in ways which may or may not be intended by those involved in them. However we consider it to involve some key structuring concepts that give the food system particular forms at certain times and and in specific places. The list of supporting concepts here is far from exhaustive, but it serves to highlights two key forms that we are interested in.
While there are many definitions of the term supply chain, each based upon a particular view of what a supply chain is and what it is made up of, most appear to share a common understanding of what a supply chain does. A supply chain transports, processes and combines raw materials and information in such a way as to deliver a finished product to an end consumer, and supply chains embrace all of the organisations and activities necessary to accomplish this transformation. In other words, a supply chain is an aggregation of everything that is required to make goods available at the point of purchase and consumption – including the logistical capacity needed to move materials between the various points of production, processing, and sale which are included within the chain.
As such, the regular flow and timely replenishment of foodstuffs – and therefore consumers’ access to food at the point of sale – depends upon the smooth functioning of supply chains. Widespread disruptions to food supply chains, and to the movement of foodstuffs along them, are therefore considered to pose a serious threat to the consumer’s access to food. Efforts by government and industry to secure food supplies often highlight the importance of reinforcing the resilience of food chains in the face of unexpected shocks, scares and emergencies. Yet such discussions also regularly identify modern food supply chains themselves as posing risks to the security of food supplies. In particular, ‘long’ or ‘complex’ supply chains which span many countries and companies are frequently singled out for criticism as being highly vulnerable to interruptions to transport infrastructure, opaque and difficult to monitor, an impediment to traceability and assurance, and especially susceptible to fraud and adulteration.
What we are calling ‘informed foods’ – foodstuffs connected to a readily accessible sea of data that identifies them and their relationships – are a number of things all ‘done together’. The increasingly dense informational environment surrounding foodstuffs describes their provenance, their ingredients, their nutritional contents and their relationship to various other sets of values and qualities (e.g. organic, fairtrade, locally produced). Maintaining a close link between foodstuffs and the information associated with them offers food companies new ways of understanding and managing the relationships in which they are entangled. The concept of informed foods is way of signalling the potential drawing together of various elements of anticipatory action – especially risk management – to more comprehensively and tightly control food safety and quality.