While “fresh is best” is, for many of us, a guiding principle in selecting food, there’s a case for taking a fresh perspective, say David Evans and Peter Jackson.
To say that something is fresh is usually to recommend it. When applied to food, it conjures images of produce that is wholesome, natural and inviting – food that tastes good and is good for us. However the pursuit of freshness carries significant environmental and social burdens. They range from the working conditions of seasonal agricultural labourers to the demands placed on energy, water and other scarce resources. A good example is the orange juice retail market in the UK. Orange juice that is considered fresh on the grounds that it is not made from concentrate and is sold in refrigerated cabinets commands a price premium. It also has nearly triple the carbon footprint of orange juice that is reconstituted from concentrate and sold at ambient temperature.
Perhaps, then, fresh isn’t always best. Given the challenges confronting current and future food systems, it is time to ask: What exactly is freshness? Why is it so important? And can it open up new ways of thinking about sustainability in the production and consumption of food?
To understand the commercial and cultural significance of freshness, you need only to look at what is important to consumers. Market research suggests that freshness is one of the most important things that consumers consider when buying food. Of the various words and phrases used to describe food, the terms “fresh” and “farm fresh” are reported to be the most appealing. These expectations have consequences across the entire food system.
Think of the agricultural resources that are dedicated to the primary production of fresh food. Think of the organisational and technological ingenuity required to keep this produce fresh as it travels around the globe. Think of the ways in which firms attempt to differentiate their products on the grounds that they are fresher than their competitors.
It is no exaggeration to say that freshness is a key coordinating principle that mediates the encounter between supply and demand in a global economy. Another reminder, should any be needed, that prices are seldom the only mechanism for holding markets together.
What does it mean?
The answer to the question: what is freshness, is far from obvious. Identifying the opposite is often helpful in a search for a definition of a term; not so in the case of freshness. Fresh food can be contrasted with: frozen food, food that is packaged or processed, food that has travelled a long way, food that does not perish quickly, ready meals and convenience food, food that does not look or taste nice, and food that is past its best rather than at its best.
Our research explored the role of freshness in the UK and Portuguese food industry. We worked with producers, consumers and other stakeholders in mainstream and alternative food networks. We quickly discovered that freshness is an incredibly slippery term. Part of the problem is that it often stands in for other qualities of food such as healthiness, flavour and authenticity. Part of the problem is that it can mean a lot of different things, all of which are equally valid. For example freshness can be a matter of minimising the time since harvest, but it can also be matter of maximising shelf life. It is intimately tied to people’s senses and to nature, but it also involves maintaining consistency in quality standards throughout the year. It is associated with local produce, however it can also be linked to exotic places and flavours.
There is no way to determine conclusively what freshness is. More importantly, trying to do so is a distraction. It is far more valuable to ask how freshness is “done”. Our research suggests that there is clearly a role for scientific and other forms of knowledge about what is, and what is not, fresh.. However freshness is “done” through practical activities that assess it (for example, quality control checks) and maintain it (for example, streamlining supply chains). This in turn relies on preservation technologies (for example the cold chain) and devices for measuring freshness (for example temperature probes).
Freshness is “done” in many different ways. Each of these requires the skilful integration of techniques, concepts and knowledge. And each requires widespread recognition and acceptance that freshness is being created. Each of these has effects – economic, social and environmental – across the food system.
“Think of the organisational and technological ingenuity required to keep this produce fresh as it travels around the globe”.
Embracing the different ways in which freshness is “done” and acknowledging its impacts across the food system unlocks creative approaches to the task of fostering greater sustainability. While the industrial production and mass consumption of freshness clearly causes adverse social and environmental outcomes, responses need not be limited to calls for a return to pre-industrial food systems. Leaving aside the need for more conclusive evidence that local and seasonal produce is better in terms of health and sustainability, our research shows that it cannot be assumed to be any fresher than the alternatives. There are many more options available for “doing” freshness differently.
One option might be to harness the power of freshness. The term carries significant cultural and economic value. It is also inherently malleable – it can be lots of different things and it tends to change over time. Efforts to effect positive changes in
food systems could focus on finding ways to align freshness with patterns of food production and consumption that are desirable in terms of health and sustainability. For example, attention could be paid to shifting perceptions and expectations of what fresh orange juice is. If concentrated juice sold at ambient temperature replaced by ‘not-from-concentrate’ juice sold in chilled cabinets, then the carbon emissions per litre drunk could decrease significantly (2.4kg versus 6.4kg).
“Our research suggests that freshness is actually less important than the other qualities of food.”
Conversely, there are good reasons for changing the conversation about what is important in the production and consumption of food. Our research suggests that freshness is actually less important than the other qualities of food. Focusing on these can direct efforts to re-organise food systems in ways that support what really matters to people.
Above all, attention to freshness provides a way of thinking holistically about food systems and to make connections from farm to fork. All of the individual parts have freshness in common. “Doing” freshness, then, requires extensive co-ordination between producers, suppliers, retailers, technologies, consumers, policy makers and civil society.
For example, the emergence of industrial freshness from the 1930s onwards involved major and rapid changes in the relationships between diverse elements of the food system. While there have been many adverse consequences (such as the excessive energy burden of the cold chain), it gives hope that the major and rapid changes required for transitioning to greater sustainability remain a possibility. These changes must be technologically feasible, culturally appropriate and economically viable. Clearly this will take a lot of effort and co-ordination. But so too does the maintenance of current – unsustainable – arrangements. Looking at what holds these in place offers fresh perspectives on how to change them.
David M. Evans is Professor of Material Culture, Markets and Consumption in the School of Economics, Finance and Management at the University of Bristol. He leads the agro-food research theme at the Cabot Institute for the Environment
Peter Jackson is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield. He Co-Directs the University’s Institute for Sustainable Food.
Evans, D.M. & Mylan, J. (in press) “Market coordination and the making of conventions: Qualities, consumption and sustainability in the agro-food industry, Economy and Society”
Evans, D.M. and the Project Team (2019). Fresh is best? New perspectives of sustainable food systems. Report of ESRC research project
Freidberg, S. (2009) Fresh: A perishable history. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Holmes, S. 2013. Fresh fruit, broken bodies: Migrant farmworkers in the United States. California: University of California Press.
Jackson, P. Evans, D., Truninger, M., Meah, A. & Baptista, J. (2019) Enacting freshness in the UK and Portuguese agri-food sectors. Transactions of the IBG, 44(1): 79-93.
Mylan, J. 2016. “The directionality of desire in the economy of qualities: The case of retailers, refrigeration and reconstituted orange juice”. In H. Bulkeley et al. (eds.). Toward a Cultural Politics of Climate Change: Devices, Desires and Dissent (pp. pp. 142-159). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.