Accepted Paper:

Food security as a moral dilemma: interest of the public vs. interest of the market   


Frédéric Keck (Musée du quai Branly)

Paper short abstract:

This paper will explore the constraints of transparency that impose themselves on the practices of experts in the French Food Safety Agency, as these experts have to evaluate the risks of food in a public sphere while belonging to the food industry in some way or other.

Paper long abstract:

This paper starts from an ethnographic enquiry on the French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA), and raises issues of moral choices in the domain of the gestion of risks, generally conceived as biopolitical. Experts gathered by the AFSSA have to produce an independant and transparent collective expertise on alimentary risks, while working privately for food companies as scientific advisors. How do they cope with this double position, and how do they follow the constraints of the two situations ? The AFSSA has codified this dilemma through the declaration of conflict of interest ; but what does it mean to serve both the interest of the public and the interest of the market, and to what extent can it be declared ? To understand the moral dilemmas that experts have to face, it is necessary to go back to the creation of the AFSSA at the time of mad cow disease : under the head of the principle of precaution, decisions were taken by politicians relying on experts to avoid the contamination of consumers by prions, that went against the interests of the market (the most strinking being the destruction of cattle suspected). How far is it possible to describe the daily moral constraints of experts by reference to a state of exception in which moral choices became particularly stiff ?

Besides this general question, that concerns the link between science, economics and morals, two methodological questions will be adressed. First, how is the ethnographer to engage his participant observer situation, that is, to what kind of interest is he suspected to be linked ? Second, can concepts of Durkheimian sociology, such as sacred, contagion and participation, be used to describe the mental and moral constraints of the codification of food, in a biopolitical situation that recasts and transforms the anthropological problems raised by religion in other societies ?

Panel W082
Anthropology of biopolitics and moral choices