Science for Impact @ ‘We have to eat, right?’

Access to safe and healthy foods is a crucial element in food security. However, as a consequence of modernization, industrialization, agricultural intensification and urbanization food safety has become a major social and political issue across rapidly developing Asia. Below you can read about the societal impact of Dr. Sigrid C.O. Wertheim-Heck's reseach titled: 'We have to eat, right?' Food safety concerns and disarticulation of Asian retail modernization policy in the performance of everyday life.

What was the problem?

Government policies in stimulating the development and expansion of supermarkets may be motivated by concerns about food safety and better control on the chain, but consumers have their own logics to keep buying at the market. Everyday reality shows a value-action gap between the consumers’ stated preference for purchasing safe vegetables at supermarkets and supermarkets struggling to sell certified safe vegetables, even when supermarkets are readily available to them. As it turns out, transitions in the food buying practices of Vietnamese consumers are not so easily established. Vietnam is a prime example of a context that begs the question of how to articulate policy in the performance of everyday life, which motivated the PhD research on how ordinary people confront food safety risks and why and how they do, or do not, adopt alternative (i.e. modern retail shopping) practices to respond to their increasing concerns about the fresh-food made available to them.

What did we do?

A practices theory based research approach was used to study how people in their everyday lives and within a transformative context confront food real safety risks that are difficult to influence or come to grips with. The research was subdivided into four empirical research studies, each with a distinct perspective on the everyday practice of shopping for vegetables and coping food safety risks as indicated in Table 1. This combination of shifting perspectives on the study of everyday practice of shopping for vegetables, which combined three studies that zoomed-in on specific vegetable shopping practices with a study that took a more holistic perspective, zooming out through a historical analysis on a whole portfolio of vegetable shopping practices. The method mix applied in the distinct empirical studies is presented in Table 2.

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Table 1: Overview of research questions and four empirical research studies in Vietnam


Table 2: Overview of type of field research methods used per study


What happened?

This research approach demonstrated how changes in infrastructure are not sufficient for changing vegetable purchasing practices and provided insights on why shopping at supermarkets is not just currently still limited in attracting daily shoppers, but that also looking ahead, it is not reasonable to expect homogenization in food retail system transformation. The study warns against making food safety policies strongly dependent on a single supermarket model. Acknowledging the complex tasks of policymakers in stimulating development for social betterment, this research points out that it is informative for policy makers to think in terms of hybrid transition processes rather than pursuing one-dimensional organizational fixes that require radical breaks with well-established routines.

Who did we influence?

The research has been impactful from the start. Dr Sigrid Wertheim-Heck’s experience and expertise in the field of food system transitions and interventions relating to food safety, and her close involvement in food marketing and retailing, made that she was well positioned for knowledge dissemination among a wide network of stakeholders. Not only is the research published in 4 articles in peer reviewed journals and several more popular journals, additionally the research has contributed to the debate on food system transformations among high level public authorities, the research was shared and discussed within the academic community, the research informed private sector initiatives for business development and the research results stirred the sharing of memories, emotions and ideas regarding fresh food retailing in Vietnam among a wide public. Based on her practical experience and in 2015 completed PhD research Sigrid is currently providing oversight on research programs in Southeast Asia and is strategic policy advisor for various governments on realizing sustainability and food security goals within the Southeast Asian region. The research directly resulted in a follow-up research titled ‘Retail Diversity for Dietary Diversity’ within the Drivers of Food Choice Competitive Grant Program:

What to read more?

Shifting configurations of shopping practices and food safety dynamics in Hanoi, Vietnam: a historical analysis. Wertheim-Heck, S.C.O. and Spaargaren, G. (2015) Agriculture and Human Values,

Food safety and urban food markets in Vietnam: The need for flexible and customized retail modernization policies. Wertheim-Heck, S.C.O., Vellema, S. and Spaargaren, G. (2015) Food Policy,

Constrained consumer practices and food safety concerns in Hanoi, Wertheim-Heck, S.C.O., Vellema, S. and Spaargaren, G. (2014) International Journal of Consumer Studies,

Food Safety in everyday life: Shopping for vegetables in a rural city in Vietnam. Wertheim-Heck, S.C.O., Spaargaren, G. and Vellema, S. (2014) Journal of Rural Studies,