Public perceptions of the UK food system: public understanding and engagement, and the impact of crises and scares

Lead Research Organisation: National Centre for Social Research
Department Name: Research Department


We propose addressing each of these research aims through a three stage sequential mixed method design. Each element has its own aims but also feeds into the broader research design.

1. Social media research

Cardiff University has been collecting a random 1% of all UK tweets since 2012. We will analyse the tweets collected during the period of the horsemeat scandal and review them to identify key search terms that can be used to identify other tweets that are likely to relate to the horsemeat scandal. We will then use this 'lexicon' to search all Twitter traffic from the time of the scandal and purchase all of the relevant tweets for one month following the start of the scandal.

We will use this data to map levels of activity and changing sentiment against a timeline of the key events. This will identify:

- Key announcements, information and media coverage which had the greatest impact on social media.
- Key messages, opinions or attitudes that developed at least partly because of social media.
- How sentiment towards the scandal and particular actors changed over time.

Secondly we will develop a network map showing how information flowed through Twitter, focussing on the producers and proliferators of key messages. This will include modelling the likelihood that particular opinions or information will be proliferated allowing us to:

- Understand how and why particular information (and misinformation) on the horsemeat scandal proliferated through Twitter.
- Identify key actors in bridging information between different groups represented on social media.

2. Qualitative workshops

We propose conducting six half-day workshops with a total of up to 300 participants. A purposive sampling strategy will be adopted, in order to capture the views of a diverse range of people in terms of five characteristics which are known to be linked to food behaviours: socio-economic status, age, household composition, diet and ethnicity. We will conduct them across the UK to achieve further demographic and geographic spread.

Each workshop will host 40 to 50 participants, include a mix of plenary sessions and smaller discussion groups and will be based around two themes:

i) Food supply chains, trust, responsibility and values including:

- How people understand food supply chains.
- Whether they consider food supply chains when buying food, what they consider, why and how they obtain the information required to do this.
- Who they trust for information about supply chains and food supply.
- Who they see as responsible for food information and safety.

ii) Managing food "scares" including:

- How and why public perceptions of food supply chains were affected the recent horsemeat scandal.
- How perceptions were affected by the actions of organisations involved in food supply chains, the government response, media coverage of the incident, and wider public debate.
- Who people see as responsible for managing food "scares" and who they trust in these situations, and what they expect from government.

3. Quantitative survey

We propose adding a module of 20 questions to the British Social Attitudes survey developed from the data collected during the other stages of the research. The exact content will be agreed once the results from these first two stages are known but may include:

- Levels of engagement with issues related to supply chains
- Key issues of concern regarding food chain management
- Who the public trust to manage food production and food supply chains
- What values should be applied to the management and regulation of food chains
- Views on food scandals and scares and responses to them

Data will be analysed against the full range of socio-demographic variables as well as other attitudinal data from other parts of the survey using a range of statistical methods, including segmentation.

Planned Impact

A range of organisations who would benefit from this research, and the specific ways in which they may use the data have been identified:

The Food Standards Authority (FSA):
This research will garner new insights into how people engage with and understand food supply chains; where there may be gaps in knowledge, information or understanding; and how this varies between socio-demographic groups. This feeds directly into the FSAs strategic objective to ensure the consumers have the the information and understanding required to make informed choices about what they eat. Further to this the interrogation of the impact and dynamics of scares or 'crises' in UK food supply chains will provide invaluable insight into how such events can be best managed in the future.

Government and other policy makers:
The benefits to the FSA will also be shared with a range of other government departments and policy makers, including departments like DEFRA, the Department of Health and Public Health England whose interests overlap with those of the FSA. The insights gained from this research will help departments such as these better understand patterns of consumption as well as how the public respond to food scares, which often have health dimensions. Furthermore it will show, with great depth and detail, how this varies across different groups allowing future interventions to be targetted for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

NGOs and charities:
Our scoping work and wider discussions with NGOs and charities have demonstrated that the proposed research would be valuable to the work of organisations in a range of different areas. These include organisations working on areas related to sustainable production and consumption, food security, consumer rights and information as well as a number of others. This research will provide new insights into how the public understand and engage with the food supply chains including identifying the current extent of understanding and engagement, key knowledge or awareness gaps, where more information is required, how this information should best be presented and communicated (both generally and during particular 'crises') and how this varies across different socio-economic groups. This will allow NGOs and charities to develop updated approaches to engaging with these issue and to better target campaigns, information or interventions where they are most needed.

Private sector:
The private sector and particularly large food producers, retailers and supermarkets play a key role in design, maintenance and management of UK food supply chains. Among many producers, retailers and supermarkets there is an increased emphasis on where food has come from, whether it be related to 'buying British', supporting local producers, reducing food miles, or simply knowing where food has come from (which often links into debates about animal welfare and the use of chemicals in agriculture). The insights from this research will help these private sector actors understand how consumers engage with the issues central to these initiatives which in turn will allow them to better tailor, market and manage them in the future.

Advisory group:
As detailed in the Pathways to Impact attachment we will set up a stakeholder advisory group which will in part be used to ensure that the outputs from the study are relevant and can be used in a way that will ensure impact on policy and practice.


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Description Ethics in social media workshop 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other audiences
Results and Impact The workshop was held at the University of Aberdeen called "Social Media Privacy and Risk: Towards More Ethical Research Methodologies", which is part a grant from the Economic and Social Research Council "Social Media - Developing Understanding, Infrastructure & Engagement (Social Media Enhancement)" Aim was to co-produce a set of ethical guidelines around the use of social media data for social research. The workshop was predominantly attended by academics including our collaborator Dr Luke Soan from Cardiff and one of our project researchers. Our project came up a few times as an example of using social media data to understand public attitudes and was discusssed in relation to issues such as sharing data (Twitter T&C's of data sharing), anonymization (or the fact that you're not allowed to anonymise Twitter data when reporting individual tweets) and the right to withdraw (once Twitter data is collected via purchaser there is no mechanism to allow users to delete their data).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016