you are here: home > research projects > manufacturing meaning

go to cultures of consumption home page
go to the about us page
go to news
go to page about projects
go to events page
go to publications page

click to go to links page




project findings | PROJECT OUTLINE |

Manufacturing meaning along the food commodity chain

Recent food scares have fuelled public concerns about food and farming. Consumers find it difficult to know where their food comes from, how it is produced, and how far it has travelled. Food provision is increasingly organised through complex supply chains, often on a global scale. This has implications for consumer confidence, food safety and public health.

This project has interviewed consumers, manufacturers, retailers, and farmers to examine these issues by analysing chicken and sugar commodity chains. It reveals how food is increasingly ‘sold with a story’ and how food producers have to manage the changing meanings of food as well as coping with the demands of technological change and product innovation.

This project ran from March 2003 to April 2007

image illustrating findings

view the findings summary for this project [pdf]

Project team
Peter Jackson award holder
Neil Ward
Polly Russell
Rob Perks

Professor Peter Jackson
Department of Geography
University of Sheffield
S10 2TN

+44 (0)114 222 7908

Publications include:
Jackson P., Ward N. and Russell P. ‘Mobilising the Commodity Chain Concept in the Politics of Food and Farming’, Journal of Rural Studies 22 (2006), pp.129–141.

Jackson, P. and Ward, N. ‘Connections and Responsibilities: The Moral Geographies of Sugar’, in Nützenadel A. and Trentmann F. (eds .) Food and Globalisation: Consumption, Markets and Politics in the Modern World (Oxford: Berg, forthcoming, 2008).

Jackson P., Russell P. and Ward N. ‘The Appropriation of “Alternative” Discourses by Mainstream Food Retailers’, in M. Kneafsey et al(eds.) Constructing ‘Alternative’ Food Geographies (Oxford: Elsevier, in press, 2007).

The project has also developed an interactive educational website, Food Stories, including extracts from the life history interviews:


Project outline

The following is the text of the project's original proposal



Public concerns about food and farming have increased in recent years as a result of the controversies over BSE, Foot and Mouth Disease and the debate over GM foods. Consumers rarely have detailed knowledge about where their food comes from, the conditions under which it is produced, and the distance it travels from source to sales-point. With food provision increasingly organised on a global scale, there is rising concern about the effects of the growing 'food mile' on consumer confidence and public safety. This project seeks to address these issues through an analysis of food commodity chains of varying length. By making commodity chains more transparent the project aims to enable consumers to make more informed choices and to contribute to current debates about the governance and regulation of the food industry in the UK.

return to outline menu


Commodity chain analysis seeks to understand the links between producers and consumers by tracing the links that connect people and places at different points along the chain. Focusing on specific commodities, the project will take a life-history approach to investigate the social, political and technological changes that have transformed the UK food industry within living memory. Rather than simply mapping the 'food mile', this project seeks to understand the way that the cultural meaning of food, as well as its economic value, is transformed as it moves along the chain from source to sales-point. The project will explore how food commodity chains have developed over recent years as a result of changing institutional and regulatory frameworks.

The project aims to understand how recent transformations in food production systems have been experienced by people at different points along the chain. The project seeks to 'humanise' our understanding of commodity chains by recording the life-histories of people involved at various key points in the food industry, setting their professional knowledge in a wider social context. The project will also explore the political and economic forces that shape the process of commodity production. These forces include the 2003 Mid-Term Review of the Common Agricultural Policy with its anticipated emphasis on improving the quality of food production systems and EU Regulations 2081/92 and 2082/92, designed to protect food and drink products that can claim some special character or geographical origin.

return to outline menu


The project seeks to address the following questions:

  • How is the meaning of food transformed as it moves along the commodity chain from source to sales-point?
  • How are commodity chains shaped by different regulatory bodies and institutional actors?
  • Does the length of the chain have significant consequences for consumer confidence and public safety?
  • How useful is the 'commodity chain' approach in making food production systems more transparent to consumers?

return to outline menu


The research focuses on commodity chains of varying length. These range from small-scale family-based producers selling directly from the farm or through local farmers' markets to high-street multiples with transnational supply networks selling to a national and international customer base. The project focuses on two specific commodities, chicken and sugar, examining short/simple and long/complex chains in each case. Research methods include life-history interviews with key staff in the food industry (from farmers and butchers to product developers and retailers), focus groups with consumers in different parts of the UK, and interviews with policy makers concerned with the regulation and governance of food provision.

return to outline menu


All of the life-history interviews will be deposited with the National Life Story Collection at the British Library (publicly accessible via the BL's on-line catalogue at Project findings will be disseminated via an interactive Web-based educational resource, designed to be used by teachers and students, the media and food researchers. Research briefings and workshops will also be held for academic and policy audiences.



TOP | home | ABOUT US | NEWS | PROJECTS | events | PUblications | CONTact US


ahrc logoesrc logobirkbeck college logo