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Interpretation of food risks by mothers of kindergarten children in St. Petersburg, Russia, and their strategies of risk handling

Interprétation des risques alimentaires par les mères dans les jardins d’enfants de St. Petersburg, Russie, et leurs stratégies de gestion de risques
Olga Gromasheva


Cette étude examine les différents types de risques alimentaires et les différentes stratégies mises en place par des mères d’enfants en école maternelle, en Russie. Cette recherche s’appuie sur l’analyse de forums de discussions sur Internet et sur des entretiens semi-directifs ; le public se compose essentiellement de femmes mariées de la classe moyenne, ayant fait des études supérieures, à St Petersbourg et Moscou. Trois groupes de risques alimentaires sont apparus à l’analyse des données empiriques : des risques dus à la non application des règles sanitaires ; des risques provenant de produits dont les enfants sont friands ; et des risques « invisibles ». Le deuxième groupe de risques, les obsessions alimentaires des enfants, est celui qui donne le plus d’inquiétudes aux mères et qu’elles essaient le plus activement de gérer. En conséquence, on a pu dégager un large éventail de leurs stratégies, allant du déni et de la patience à la mise en place d’actions collectives. Les stratégies sont de trois ordres : la résistance, la non-résistance, l’adaptation. De manière générale, il ressort que les mères tendaient à agir le plus activement sur le 2è groupe de risques alimentaires, en appliquant la stratégie de l’adaptation.

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1The issue of food risks is increasingly becoming an actuality in modern Russia, as it is in the western countries. Food affluence has replaced the former shortage of products; new technologies in the food industry have given birth to many novelties now available in Russia because of globalized distribution. Meanwhile, many of these new products (for example, those containing artificial food additives or genetically-modified ingredients) give rise to concern for consumers and food experts. Of utmost concern are the consumption practices of a special group of consumers: children.

  • 1 URL: Consulted on 15 May 2011
  • 2 URL:, and Cons (...)

2Nowadays Russia is experiencing a rise in food-related disease which is most dramatic among children and adolescents (registered cases of obesity among adolescents have increased 2.65 times from 2000-2008)1. Though the number of food safety violations (for example those of sanitary-chemical and microbiological origin) has decreased over the last decade, many of them are still officially registered each year by the Russian Federal Service on Customer Rights Protection and Human Well-Being Surveillance (violations have been found in 3-5% of tested products). Food for children is subject to stricter food regulation than food for adults, yet baby food and school meals that do not comply with regulated hygienic requirements appear in 2-3% of tested products/meals (Federal Service, 2008, 2011). Unfortunately, it is not surprising that every year several hundreds of children get food poisoning in kindergartens and schools (the number was 200-300 children a year, on average from 2003-2006, according to the Russian Federal Service on Customers’ Rights Protection and Human Well-Being Surveillance). Though the Russian Federal Service does not provide data on cases of food poisoning in children after 2006, it shows that the total cases of food poisoning is still on the rise, including three lethal cases in 2010 (Federal Service, 2011: 132). My own calculations revealed (using the information cited on just three Russian news websites2) that in Russia over 750 children suffered from food poisoning in 2007 and at least 350 children were afflicted in 2008. But the real number of the victims is unknown (it could even be significantly higher if all the data were available) because when cases of food poisoning are not epidemic, parents seldom approach the authorities. They try to solve the problems on their own. Some possible explanations for their attitudes are discussed below.

3Another issue is that Russian consumers must make their decisions about which food to give to their children in an environment of information asymmetry. Thirty to forty percent of foodstuffs on the market do not provide full and adequate information about ingredients, nutritional value, shelf life, and so on (Ganskau, 2006: 168). At least 50-60% of products containing GMOs do not have necessary and relevant information on the package, despite obligation by law to display this information (Federal Service, 2008; 2011). The proportion of adulterated foodstuffs is from 36%-60% (Ganskau 2006: 170).

4It is striking that such a serious and problematic situation in the realm of food safety has not given rise to food panic, mass protests, or wide public debates. In this article I will analyze the possible reasons for this passive attitude by looking at how consumers perceive food risks and make decisions concerning nutrition. Though Russian consumers in general do have relatively passive behaviour concerning food risks, there is one group of consumers who are most concerned about this issue: mothers. The platform these mothers are enthusiastically using to discuss it is the Internet, as we will see in the research section of this paper.

  • 3 The research was carried out in 2008 in St. Petersburg within the framework of the MA in Sociology (...)
  • 4 The study showed that the mothers were the people responsible for the family’s food consumption.

5The aim of this research3 is exploratory: to give an overview and to develop a classification for the interpretation of food risks by mothers4 of 3-7 year-old children and the strategies they use to manage these risks. I analyzed internet forum discussions and conducted seven semi-structured, focused interviews with mothers. I chose the family Internet forum ( based on a citation index (Yandex) and visitors statistics (, LiveInternet, Rambler’s Top100). The discussions included in this study were from the relevant section of the forum dealing with the nutrition of 3-7 year-old children and took place between June 2007 and June 2008. Most of the Internet forum discussion group contributors and the interviewees were middle-class, married, highly-educated women, living in big Russian cities (predominantly Moscow and St. Petersburg) with 1-2 children. I used a thematic coding method to analyse the empirical data and I chose a priori themes such as food risks, sources of information, strategies, meanings of food, etc.). Coding was done according to these themes, and relevant items (for example, strategies) were grouped and labelled by the researcher.

6After the brief description of my theoretical framework, I will present the food risks typology and classification of strategies together with the analysis of sources of information on food risks.

Theoretical discussion

7This study is inspired by a social-constructivist approach to risk (Beck, 1992a, 1992b; Giddens, 1991; Luhmann, 1994; Douglas, 1990) . This perspective proposes to make a distinction between “real” threats, and threats “perceived by the public” (the latter depends largely on expert knowledge.) We refer here to the Ulrich Beck’s concept of “risk society” (1992b) which introduced the idea of the emergence of “new-type” risks in post-modern society (radioactive or chemical pollution of foodstuff, etc.). One of the important features of these new-type risks is their “invisibility”, that is the impossibility to detect them by direct perception of the senses. It is the reason why expert knowledge is a necessary component of general evidence in the risk assessment. Yet, Giddens (1991) and Beck (1992a) challenge the validity of trusting expert opinion and turn their attention towards individual strategies of risk management, assuming that communication, awareness, and openness of the society would stimulate solidarity, and as a result, change harmful environments for the better.

  • 5 This distinction between "new-type" risks (which are produced by highly developed technologies) and (...)

8Russia, compared to the western countries, is a society where two major types of risks have proliferated (Yanitsky, 2003). Not only are there new risks of globalisation and modernisation arising in post-Iron Curtain Russia, but the “old-type” risks5 are still present (these have survived since the Soviet era and emerged during the post-Soviet transformation process). This complex and exceptionally risk-filled background probably explains the fact that Russians have high tolerance for many kinds of risks and use specific strategies of risk handling – among which patience is the most common (ibid.: 38, 44).

9Yanitsky distinguishes several “self-protection practices” typical in contemporary Russian society. Some of them (namely patience, escape, and solidarity) appeared to be very relevant for the analysis of the mothers’ strategies for risk handling. As a result, they are incorporated into the analysis, tailored to fit the food risks background, and re-formulated based on the empirical evidence. Although Yanitsky’s conceptualisation of self-protection practices is very promising, in order to better understand the mothers’ reactions to food risks, it is necessary to include more subtle and flexible types of actions which were described by Michel de Certeau (1984) in his concept of “tactics”. In contrast to actions of those individuals who have power over their own physical or institutional space, tactics are the reactions of the less powerful who do not have rights over this space. This means that tactics are only developed and employed in a space that is regulated by someone else, which powerless individuals can temporarily occupy but cannot keep (ibid.: XIX, 37). De Certeau instanced that consumers are not passive. Rather, they are active agents who are able to adjust to the existing system of social relations by using various tactics (ibid.: XII- XIII, XV, XIX) that allow them to reach their goals (in this research – to handle food risks) without changing the whole system.

10In this paper, I conceptualise the mothers’ reactions towards food risks as strategies. I also understand self-protection practices (Yanitsky, 2003) and tactics (de Certeau, 1984) as separate elements of handling food risk. Later in this paper, I will describe three groups of strategies (resistance, non-resistance, and adaptation) and specific strategies within each group, which derived from the empirical evidence.

11Before discussing the empirical findings of the research, I will examine the concept of “patience”. Though not deliberately addressed within this article, patience is visible in the mothers' strategies and therefore important for understanding the key features of this phenomenon. The attempt is also to specify the distinct features of the “Russian patience” in contrast with the passivity of consumers in other European countries. Patience, or in a broader sense, non-resistance and passivity of consumers, is of course not a recent or exclusively Russian phenomenon. It is the most common consumer attitude in modern society. As some authors suggest, “A population of passive food consumers – people who do not think about the food system and its sustainability – is one of the chief goals of industrial food production… and dominant food industry as well” (Wilkins, 2005: 269-270). So patience against overwhelming odds is not an uncommon reaction, but what is so special about “Russian patience”?

12Lev Gudkov et al. argue that the most recognised and empirically proven response that Russians have towards hardships throughout their pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet history has been “the obvious prevalence of patience over active protest or revolt, passive discontent instead of fighting for human rights” (2008: 7). According to Yuri Levada (1999: 12), more than half of Russians consider patience to be the main feature of the Russian national character. Other studies confirm this as well (Tsvetkova, 2010: 90-91). So, patience is perceived not only as the common feature of Russians, but as the positive value that is essential to Russian national identity. But according to Yanitsky (2003: 112-118), patience threatens the survival of Russian society when it manifests as a typical reactiono of Russian consumers towards food risks. The typical Soviet (and post-Soviet) individual is oriented toward prostota (simpleness) which makes him/her choose simplified strategies of survival. This entails the minimisation of needs together with his/her passive reverie and unreasonable hope for the best. Gudkov et al. (2008: 7-8) go as far as arguing that this phenomenon is a sign of the simplistic primitive nature of the social order. They argue that for the (post)-Soviet man “there is a social void in the space between state authorities as the source of goods and the close circle of relatives and friends”. This means that in the life of Russians, the role of various intermediaries (NGOs, social movements) is insignificant, and that they are not trusted to the same degree as social networks (ibid.: 76; Ganskau, 2006: 142-143). While the complexity and differentiation of the social order is peculiar for European culture, this feature is one of the important differences between Russians and other Europeans (Gudkov et al., 2008: 7).

Sources of information of food risks

13Prior to addressing how mothers perceive food risks it is important to note where they obtain their information about harmful or unhealthy foodstuffs, and what their attitudes are toward this information and its sources. In this section, I will address the Ganskau (2006) study on food risks in St. Petersburg to complement or contrast with my own data.

14The main channels of information about food risks for the mothers in my research were the Internet, TV (for instance, the program “Kontrolnaya zakupka (Test purchase)”, shown on channel 1 since 2006), and a mass of interpersonal communication. As Ganskau’s research demonstrates, female consumers are very seldom intentionally searching for information on food risks. On the contrary they often receive critical information (for instance, information about violations in retail, GMO, and chemical additives) while watching TV or reading popular magazines with the objective of relaxing and “knowing nothing” (ibid.: 272, 275). It is also important to mention that though there are some magazines (for example, the journal St. Petersburg quality) that seek to provide consumers with information on food risks, results of product tests, or recommendations for high-quality products, consumers in both Ganskau’s (ibid.: 275-276) and my research were not aware of them.

15Another important issue is that negative information seems to be more trusted and have a stronger impact upon the Ganskau (ibid.: 278) study’s informants and on the mothers who participated in my study. Ganskau states that distrust in food, and moreover, the belief in various horror tales (rats’ tails in sausages, etc.) is a cultural phenomenon, a typical feature of Russian consumers (ibid.: 260). This question needs further study but one plausible explanation can be in the combination of different factors. The first factor is that, as described above, Russian consumers do not search out legitimate sources of reliable scientific information. Instead they absorb the information in a more passive manner, by watching TV and reading magazines. The information on food risks from these sources often has a scandalous and entertaining character (similar to horror movies). The second factor is that Russian producers and retailers are not very open in communication with consumers or transparent in providing information about the food production process, access to factories, etc. The Ganskau (ibid.: 277-278) study’s informants stated that consumers lack this important direct interaction with producers. The perceptions of Russian consumers are thus being formed in the context of an information asymmetry and a vacuum of reliable information in which consumers are unaware of the real conditions, technologies, and problems of food production. On the other hand, they receive news on food scandals from the mass media on a daily basis (revelations of illegal manufacturing where food is produced in unsanitary conditions; candid cameras showing how rotten fish is being washed, coloured, and returned to supermarket shelves; etc.). At the same time the abundance of such negative information in the absence of available solutions often resulted in oppression, ignorance of risks, unwillingness to reflect on and negotiate risks, or refusal to acquire information and thence make informed decisions (“the less you know the better you sleep” – according to Ganskau, 2006: 270, 278). Therefore, food risks become an accepted part of the daily life of the consumer. They adapt to the food risks, and in Gidden’s terms, develop “pragmatic acceptance” (taking every day as it comes) (1991: 131, cited by Ganskau, 2006: 270).

16The young mothers who participated in my project are a special group of middle-class, university-educated consumers. This section of the population is the most reflective part of society regarding food risks because they are responsible not only for their own consumption but for the nutrition and well-being of their children. Most mothers mentioned that they were sensitive to the recommendations of pediatricians, nutritionists, gastroenterologists, dentists, psychologists, biologists, geneticists, etc., and they considered them to be trustworthy experts. However, the mothers often questioned the official information from state nutritionists due to its political bias or commercial interests (this attitude can be labelled as “personalised distrust of particular experts”). The results of my research support Beck’s arguments (1992b) on the modern crisis of trust in expert systems, suggesting that many officials and scientists are distrusted due to consumers’ suspicion of corrupting activities and frequent changes in expert knowledge. (Regardless of this putative intellectual ambivalence, general trust in science is still high).

  • 6 All the names of informants are held in confidence but their social characteristics are not adulter (...)
  • 7 Here and below the source of information is indicated in curved brackets (from either an interview (...)

17Oksana6 {forum7} (Moscow, has two children, 3 and 5 years old):

  • 8 Head of the Department of children nutrition of the Research Institute for Nutrition of the Russian (...)
  • 9 All quotations from the interviews and forum discussions were translated from Russian to English. I (...)

“During the time which has passed since the birth of my first son, the opinions of nutritionists have changed several times. First it was veal and turkey, then horse and rabbit meat; the latest thing (two years ago) – was lean pork ... I.Y. Konj8 changes his opinion like a weathercock. At least, I remember by his articles about breast feeding. I gave birth to my first child – I read his article “you should feed the child strictly according to the schedule” (I was surprised, because the year was 2003), after a couple of years I gave birth to a second child – and then he wrote how good it is to feed a baby whenever he asks for food. He said whatever he was asked to say.”9

18Regardless of their respect for science, most mothers tried to make their own decisions regarding the nutrition of their children; the experiences of their family, relatives, and friends were seen as having equal, if not of higher, importance than the experts’ recommendations.

19Veronika {interview} (St. Petersburg, 32 years old, higher education, housewife, has two children, 6 and 9 years old):

“You know – you asked a question and my first reaction is – I don’t trust anyone. I trust my own experience, maybe. But experience is such a thing – you don’t actually know for sure, you use something and then it turns out to be that experience was wrong. I think I trust specialists, biologists who I know… doctors, the Sanitary and Epidemiological Inspection does not win my confidence – if you take into consideration how all our state officials at all levels are corrupt – I don’t think they can be trusted.”

20The mothers mostly trusted information coming from their social networks. There were several examples where negative information from friends working in food production or retail pushed mothers to stop consuming particular products such as minced meat and frozen food. The information from producers and sellers was perceived by the mothers as the most unreliable, though there were examples of mothers establishing personal relations with particular sellers who they felt they were able to trust. This trend – personalised trust and the use of social networking as everyday survival strategies in Russia – has been described by many scholars (for instance, Voronkov and Zdravomyslova, 2004: 116-118, Yanitsky, 2003: 63-64).

21Comparison of expert and lay knowledge of food risks and their influence on one another is beyond the scope of this project. I would, however, like to make a brief remark to that end. Ganskau (2006: 261) came to the conclusion that consumers’ perceptions regarding food risks are more flexible, versatile, personalised, practically-oriented, and grounded in their everyday experience than the perceptions of experts. The experts appeal mainly to official standards, technological procedures, the quality of raw materials, equipment, etc. The same pragmatic trend is noticeable among my informants. For example, the Russian Federal Service on Customers’ Rights Protection and Human Well-Being Surveillance considered iodine deficiency to be an important food-related health issue, but it was never addressed by the mothers during the year-long discussions I recorded and analysed. On the other hand they widely discussed issues that they face in their everyday lives, such as allergies and food additives as items potentially culpable for allergies. At the same time, GMOs in food, which the Federal Service referred to as being under strict control and revealed in a very small and decreasing share of tested products, were among the main concerns of the mothers. This is a good example of what Beck called the “gaps between scientific and social rationality” (1992b: 30). This situation clearly indicates a miscommunication between consumers, in this case mothers, and state authorities.

Mothers’ interpretation of food risks for their children

22Grounded on the analysis of the Internet forum discussions and interviews with the mothers, I constructed the classification of food risks which cause the greatest concern for mothers (provided below).

23In her analysis of how St. Petersburg consumers perceive food risks Ganskau (2006: 247, 253, 260) explored attitudes regarding different groups of products (for example, cereals and fruits were perceived as the safest products; meat, fish, and convenience food as the most risky foodstuffs). In comparison with Ganskau I decided to look not at particular product groups but at risks in general. I based my classification on the following criteria:

24a) observability (whether the mother is able – by sight, smell, etc. – to understand the presence of food risks and their potential consequences);

25b) legitimacy (whether there are any legal restrictions on the production and distribution of the products containing food risks);

26c) “force of attraction” for children (whether the products containing food risks are especially desired by children and are designed to stimulate the consumption by children).

271) The first group of food risks relates to the instances where the processes such as production, storage, transportation, and sale of products are not regulated. Risks of this type are the easiest to observe (by visual appearance, smell, etc.) and link with the consequences (for example, food poisonings). The products containing these risks (for example, improper strorage temperature leading to bacterial contamination) are non-legitimate, and the strictest sanctions are applied to the producers or sellers of these products by the state sanitary inspections. At the same time these products do not have any additional attraction for children, they may even be seen as disgusting for them. This group is a typical example of the old-type of risks discussed above (Yanitsky, 2003) because they deal with inefficient management and lack of modernisation.

28Angela {interview} (St. Petersburg, 27 years old, PhD candidate, photographer-journalist, has a 5-year-old child):

“I don’t have much trust in our retail chains. Conditions of transportation, especially regarding refrigeration, are always broken – I have many friends who are working in supermarkets… That’s why I take it easy and don’t buy this food.

I only buy frozen vegetables but check that the pack hasn’t been frozen and thawed repeatedly.”

  • 10 Traditional Russian sour milk beverage.

292) The second group of food risks deals with high calorie foods that are low in vitamins, micro-elements, proteins, or dietary fibres (such as various junk and fast foods : soda drinks, sweets, potato chips, etc.). The long-life yoghurts with artificial colourings and flavourings (compared to organic yoghurt or kefir10) are also in this category of products. These are the products which are especially desired by children. These products might have a stronger flavour or smell due to food additives, or a distinctive use of advertising. The producers or fast food venues often use various marketing tricks aimed to attract children – colourful packages, free toys, cartoon characters advertising the products, etc. The mothers saw this type of food as a risk for their children. They believed that consumption of these products might cause obesity (and other consequences of an unbalanced diet). The mothers also mentioned the possible harm of food additives in these products, particularly in connection to allergic responses or gastrointestinal issues.

30Irina {forum} (Moscow, higher education, teacher, has two children):

“I want to say the following: when my child was going through an ultrasound procedure of the digestive tract, the doctor told me that now there are very many children with liver and pancreas pathologies. And they, doctors, link it, among others, with eating these Rastishka, Campina, etc. [yoghurts with artificial food additives] at a tender age… We have experienced a clear connection, unfortunately

31Risks of this type are easily observable (nutritional value, calories, food additives, etc., are usually written on the packages), but it is challenging to connect them to specific health consequences which may occur after a long period of time and be influenced by many other factors. Moreover, expert opinion is required to make this link obvious (medical tests, examinations, etc.). These products are mostly legitimate, and it is the mother’s responsibility to read the information on the package and to choose the product with or without food additives, etc. Though these risks are not a brand-new phenomenon, on the whole this group represents new-type risks (Beck, 1992b) owing to the dramatically increased use of artificial food additives, aggressive marketing, and so on, which has taken place in Russia during the last few decades as a consequence of the development of a market economy.

323) The food risks of the third type are the most “invisible” ones compared to the other types. They concern the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), residues of pesticides in vegetables, hormones and antibiotics in livestock, radioactive contamination, etc.

33Tatiana {forum} (Moscow, higher education, marketing specialist, has one child):

“Cows have this problem – mastitis -- that’s why they are injected with antibiotics. By the way, forage, which cows, pigs and others are fed with, contains GMOs, and there is no other forage on our market. In brief, there are many different bad things in our food, though we try to minimise it. For that (to have safe food - researcher’s note) you need to have your own farm, and even then it’s not the fact again, because of ecology.”

  • 11 URL: Consulted on 15 June 2008

34According to Russian legislation, the products containing over 0.9% GMOs should be appropriately labelled,11 but this rule is regularly violated in Russia. The information about pesticide or hormone use is not required to be labelled at all. The mothers were not able to use rely on their sense of smell or taste to recognize whether the products contain this type of risks or not. They could only sense it indirectly based on other characteristics, such as the huge size of vegetables. The experts play the most important role in this case. GMOs, for example, can only be identified in a small number of specialised laboratories in Russia, and the effects of their consumption can be disclosed only after expensive and long-term studies. The informants were concerned with this risks group due to the possibility that they might have unpredictable and postponed consequences, including genetic consequences which could influence the future generations.

35Victoria {interview} (St. Petersburg, 30 years old, higher education, PR-manager, has a 3-year-old child):

“If there is labelling, I wouldn’t buy GMOs. I don’t understand the ideology of their impact. There’s not enough information – what are the features of the product, which are the possible consequences. I don’t want to make experiments on myself and my family.”

36The presence of most of these risks in the products is non-legitimate (except for the use of approved GMOs with respective labelling). In cases where violations were discovered by food authorities, the rule breakers incurred only insignificant fines. These products are considered to be comparatively neutral in terms of attractiveness for children and stimulation of consumption. This is a perfect example of the new-type food risks as described by Beck (1992b), because these risks are not a consequence of lack of modernisation (as in the first group of risks) but an outcome of extreme modernisation (high technologies are producing these risks). Moreover, these risks are only detectable by experts – which means that they are “produced” by, and revealed only to, food professionals and remain invisible for consumers.

37The risks of the second group, children’s obsession with certain unhealthy products, raised the greatest concern for the mothers because their children were asking for these products all the time. As a result, it led to elaboration of the specific strategies by the mothers which will be described below (in particular, strategies of the third group – adaptation).

Mothers’ strategies for food risks handling

38Inspired by the concepts of de Certeau (1984) and Yanitsky (2003) discussed in the theoretical part of this article, and grounded on the empirical data of the study, I constructed the following classification of the mothers’ strategies of risk handling.

391) RESISTANCE to the existing food risks includes either an exit from the system (an “escape” strategy) or an attempt to change it (a “risk-solidarity” strategy). The escape strategy in this analysis comes closer to the Yanitsky strategy of “active escape”. But unlike Yanitsky, I do not include immigration, which would be an escape from all risks existing in Russia. In this paper the escape strategy implies voluntary isolation from as many food risks as possible while still living in Russia. The solidarity strategy is used well in accordance with Yanitsky’s eponymous strategy, and it means open resistance to current food risks by shaping risk-solidarities among consumers, etc., and taking collective actions aimed at a revision of the failing management system of the prevention of food risks. I will explain each of the strategies below using examples from the empirical data.

40a) Escape

41This strategy means that the mother tries to remove herself from the risky environment of the food market and create her own safer food environment for the child. One of the options the mothers discussed was to stop buying food from shops or public catering venues and to start growing fruits and vegetables, breeding animals by themselves, or providing the children only with the homemade food (this can be done by moving from a city to an (eco)village, for example).

42Antonina {interview} (28 years old, higher education, programmer, has a 4-year-old child):

“Ideal food consumption… may be when it’s grown on your own land plot. But the seeds can appear to be genetically modified. I don’t know but I wouldn’t move to a village just because of the healthier foodstuff.”

43Though the informants were mentioning this option, none of them used the strategy in full – many of them regularly consumed vegetables grown by their relatives at their summer cottages or villages, but this food made up only a small share of their everyday consumption.

44Alina {forum} (Moscow, 32 years old, two university degrees, has one child):

“On Christmas we visited our parents-in-law who had slaughtered a calf. We made minced meat, I brought the meat home, divided it into pieces and put it in freezer – I will make cutlets later…”

  • 12 Where organic products in Europe cost on average 20-60% more than conventional ones, in Russia this (...)

45Another alternative to conventional supermarket products could be organic food. But most of the mothers were not at all familiar with the word “organic,” or organic products. Though some organic products can be found in Russian grocery stores, they are still rare and too expensive for Russian customers.12

46One more variant of this strategy is the refusal to use the services of the kindergartens. One of the interviewees explained that she had to quit her job and permanently take her child out of the kindergarten because she believed that the staff was not able to provide her child with safe meals.

47The study indicated that though some mothers were using the ‘escape’ strategy constantly or occasionally, it is not a very popular strategy of handling food risks.

48b) Risk solidarity

49This strategy includes the participation in various collective actions, initiative groups, public campaigns, etc. with the aim of increasing the safety of food consumption for children. Though the mothers often indicated that they were dissatisfied with the food producers, sellers, etc., there was only one case recorded (during the one year of Internet discussions) when they were actually discussing possible collective actions. It was the case when Moscow city authorities (Administration of the Moscow branch, 2007; Moscow City Department of Education, 2007) implemented a new food regulation in which they introduced a number of products to the kindergarten’s menu that the mothers perceived as unhealthy foods. After debating the options on the Internet forum (which included collecting parents’ signatures and sending letters to food officials) the mothers ended up doing nothing because they were not able to come to consensus among themselves and they did not believe these actions could even be successful. The study showed the passivity of Russian consumers in the public arena, and their preference for individual vs. collective strategies. The study supports Yanitsky’s suggestion (2003) on the unlikelihood of shaping risk solidarities in contemporary Russia.

50Veronika {interview} (St. Petersburg, 32 years old, higher education, housewife, has two children, 6 and 9 years old):

“I am nominally active – active, but not regarding social actions. Even if I am sure that something needs to be done, I won’t do it. In our culture we don’t have this thing that the Americans have – got together, thought it out, and did it. It’s utopian to hope that consumers themselves will understand that something is concealed and start to act. We are also like that: “I will better spend this time working and earning money for my family to have non-GM caviar, and let others live as they want.”

512) NON-RESISTANCE is a group of strategies implying the refusal to fight against food risks. Non-resistance incorporates the denial strategy and the Yanitsky (2003) patience strategy.

52a) Denial of risks

53This strategy assumes that the mothers deny to acknowledge most of the food risks listed above and consider them to be either nonexistent or or exaggerated by media and find it unnecessary to take any safety precautions Some of the mothers explained this attitude by their distrust of the information about food risks which was spread, in their opinion, by biased sources. Other mothers ignored the risks because they were feeling depressed by the negative information and saw neither alternatives to the “risky” products, nor a solution to this problem. There were also a few mothers who preferred to pay no attention to risks because they found other issues, such as taste and convenience, to be considerably more important.

54Anna {forum} (Moscow, 31 years old, incomplete higher education, computer programmer, has one child):

“I’m standing here and listening, maybe it’s true that it can be tasty and healthy at the same time? For me 99% of all healthy food is categorically unsavoury, disgusting. Respectively we all (including the child) are eating very unhealthy but tasty things (fried meat two-three times a day, potatoes + meat, sweet things, Coca-cola, McDonalds). I can’t understand by now, WHAT FOR to give up all these things and chew grass???? I agree to live less but to live cool!”

55b) Patience

56This strategy implies the mothers’ recognition of possible dangers which the aforementioned risks can bring to their children’s health as well as the absence of any preventive or post factum measures. For example, if mothers bought a food item that turned out to be expired or spoiled, they threw it away without issuing any complaints or asking for a refund. In cases when the child got diarrhea as a result of the bad quality meal he/she had in the kindergarten, the mother would never address the kindergarten or any food authority regarding the issue.

57Ekaterina {interview} (St. Petersburg, 28 years old, higher education, housewife, has two children, 7 months and 5 years old):

-“We try not to buy from the shop near to the house. Meat and fish are bad there, probably because they keep them for so long. We haven’t gotten food poisoning. But I bought, smelt the odour and threw away. We were poisoned by watermelon three years ago”.

-Interviewer: “And if you buy anything of inferior quality or get food poisoning – what do you do?”

- “I will get angry, silently, and throw it into the garbage chute. I won’t go quarrelling…”

- Interviewer: “And what do you think, should parents react anyhow in case of food poisonings in kindergartens?”) “They should. If it happened with my child, I would probably go to complain somewhere. My husband is cooling me down, I had this desire a couple times, he said – don’t go, sit and don’t sound off.”

58None of the informants ever wrote complaints or filed lawsuits against anyone regarding food safety issues. Many mothers shared this strategy because it saves time, emotions, finances, and other resources. The study outcomes conformed to Yanitsky's conclusions (2003) that patience is a common for Russian consumers to a situation involving a high prevalence of risks of both old and new types.

593) ADAPTATION: within this group of strategies, the mothers do not try to change the risky environment in general but make efforts to find the individual solutions for their own children, temporarily evading the existing threats and reserving their energy (these individual solutions could be considered tactics in de Certeau’s terms (1984)).

60In contrast to the aforementioned strategies, which can refer to all groups of food risks, adaptation strategies mainly deal with the management of food risks of the second type (products that children are particularly drawn to) and are aimed at modifying the consumption of these products.

61a) Imitation

62The strategy implies the (full or partial) substitution of the products the mothers consider to be risky with homemade products or other healthier alternatives. Using this strategy, the mothers occasionally even “borrowed” the producers’ tricks to make the homemade products more attractive and reminiscent of the store-bought ones. For example, they described making “fake yoghurt” by blending home-made kefir with jam and putting it into the child’s favorite store-bought yoghurt package, cooking hamburger from homemade ingredients, and diluting artificial drink with the natural one. The mothers most frequently “counterfeited” ice creams, yoghurts, french fries, hamburgers, sandwiches, cakes, and sweets.

63Tatiana {forum} (Moscow, 36 years old, higher education, has one child):

“Play cunning :) In the ‘Rastishka’ (milk product with artificial food additives - researcher’s note) plastic cup put ‘Agusha’ curds without additives and add frozen raspberry-strawberry with cane sugar, for example, or your homemade jam. IMHO: ‘Rastishka’ is a fiery bottle for a child’s stomach :) flavourings, colourings…”

64When the mothers were dissatisfied with the kindergarten meals, they found their own solutions to the problem. Some examples were making the child eat breakfast at home in order to skip the kindergarten breakfast or monitoring the kindergarten menu and giving the staff homemade food to be served to the child instead of the “riskier” kindergarten meal.

65The empirical data explicitly showed that the homemade products are the safest, in the mothers’ opinion. The more stages of food production the mother does herself, the safer the product seems to her. She can decrease the uncertainty by controlling the process.

66b) Avoidance

67This strategy is aimed at eliminating or decreasing the stimulus to consume these “risky” products by not letting the child see the desired food. Some of the solutions employed by the mothers were: to switch off the TV during commercial breaks; to shop for food without the children (or to avoid the part of the store that contains these items); or to hide the desired products in the secret place at home.

68c) Restriction of consumption

69This strategy involves making rules about the children’s consumption of “risky” products. Some mothers introduced rules on frequency or amount of products to be consumed (for example, one candy or chips-and-cola day per week, or no more than two ice creams at once).

70Ekaterina {interview} (St. Petersburg, 28 years old, higher education, housewife, has two children, 7 months and 5 years old):

“Me and her [the daughter], we have a rule – to eat sweet things on the weekends. I’ve invented it recently. On Saturdays and Sundays…

Because the problems with the teeth started... But we don’t always keep it. At least, I’m trying to follow it regarding candies. Because if she has freedom, she will only eat sweets.”

71Other mothers put made conditions for when the child might be allowed or forbidden to eat his/her favourite product (for instance, depending on the child’s behaviour).

72d) Shaping healthy eating patterns

73This strategy, in comparison with the previously mentioned adaptation strategies, is a long-term strategy that deals with family lifestyle and the family’s role in a child’s nutritional education. It is aimed not at “faking”, imposing restrictions, or hiding desired products from the child, but at changing the child’s food preferences by convincing him/her of the harm that could be caused by a particular product.

74Victoria {interview} (St. Petersburg, 30 years old, higher education, PR-manager, has a 3-year-old child):

“Of course we explain to our son but he hasn’t yet understood it well. We tell him: “Look, we are taking an apple, you are eating it – you don’t have stains, right?” He: “Yes”. We: “And now take chupa-chups - look, now which colour are your hands? And your mouth?” He: “Oh!”. We: “Scary? And we are scared. Let’s not eat it.” He: “Let’s not”.”

75In contrast with the other adaptation strategies, which allow for hierarchical parent-child relations, this strategy supposes more equal relations when parents try not to forbid but to explain in details, persuade, and listen to the child. This strategy is the most complex and “costly” because it not only takes time, energy, and pedagogical skills from parents, but also often requires the parents to follow the same healthy eating pattern which they teach the child. At the same time this strategy, according to the interviewees, showed to be the most effective. The children who successfully internalised the “proper” eating patterns seemed to follow them even when they took independent food decisions without parents (eating at friends’ birthday parties, buying food on their own, etc.). On the contrary, the children who were under strict parental authority were more likely to use any opportunity they could to escape from their parents’ supervision and get ahold of the desired product.


76This research aimed at exploring how mothers of kindergarten children perceive food risks and how they deal with them. In this paper I introduce a classification of food risk groups and strategies used by these mothers.

77The study illustrates that, though they seldom went looking for it, the mothers received information about food risks both from the experts and (primarily) from other non-expert sources. Most of this non-expert information had a scandalous character to it and provoked negative emotions while offering no solutions to the food insecurity problem. The prevalence of such information, together with the lack of reliable information from trusted food experts, produced apathy and the use of specific strategies – such as patience – among some of the mothers. For most of the mothers, their personal experience and that of their relatives and friends, or at least the opinion of doctors or food sellers with whom they established personal relationships, became the basis for making food decisions.

78The study provides evidence of Russian middle-class mothers’ concerns about many different types of risks and shows that the new-type risks (GMO, pesticides and hormones, etc.) occupied the most significant place in their perceptions of harm, though old-type risks (hygienic violations, etc.) were also noticeable. One of the examples of these new-type risks – those products that are especially desired by children – raised the most concern in the mothers and stimulated the use of a broad range of adaptation strategies to manage these food risks.

79It is clear from the empirical data that some mothers were practicing different strategies for different types of food risks. For example, in the aforementioned examples Ekaterina was using her patience strategy for the risks of the first group (non-observance of sanitary regulation) but she was applying the restriction of consumption strategy for the second group of risks (products especially desired by children). The strategies used by the mothers varied significantly in terms of skills and required resources, efficiency, child-parent power relations, etc. These issues, as well as the prevalence of each strategy, can become interesting questions to answer in further studies.

80While the majority of the mothers were unsatisfied with the quality and safety of food sold in the supermarkets or served in public catering venues and kindergartens, they seldom made any efforts to change the risky food environments for the better choosing instead to use various individual adaptation strategies. Therefore, the study conforms with Gudkov et al. (2008) and Yanitsky (2003) arguments that most Russian people do not use any intermediaries and do not form groups but try to find individual solutions to their problems. When facing these food safety threats, the mothers were basically left alone and the general attitude of patience permeated most of the mothers’ reactions to food risks. While some of them used patience as a wait-and-see strategy, being patient and doing nothing, others tended to keep a patient attitude regarding the food system at the societal level, nevertheless implementing some changes at the family level. The research demonstrates the wide range of the mothers’ strategies that may be employed within lower income families as well and in a context of an almost entirely absent organic food market. The adaptation strategies (or tactics, in de Certeau’s words (1984)) can therefore be effective not only because they offer a child a safer alternative but also because they have the potential for changing the food environment, as long as they are shared with many other individual agents.

81In the long run, the solution-oriented consumer education of children and adults, which is almost absent in contemporary Russia, together with the increasing transparency of information by food producers and producer-consumer communication, has the capability to remove consumer anxiety, increase trust between consumers and producers, and empower the consumers. It can help consumers to overcome their traditional patience, become visible actors within the food system and become more responsible and active members of the society in general. Consumers’ reactions to food risks are hence part of a broader phenomenon of social activism. Observations on how they change with time can provide more evidence for the development of a civil society in Russia.

I would like to express profound gratitude to my research supervisor professor Anna Temkina, consultations with whom gave me many insights; and my friend Ian Wilson who reviewed this article and gave me language advice. I am also very thankful to the European University at St. Petersburg which provided me both with the exciting courses in Sociology as well as with the scholarship which allowed me to conduct this research.

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1 URL: Consulted on 15 May 2011

2 URL:, and Consulted on 15 June 2008

3 The research was carried out in 2008 in St. Petersburg within the framework of the MA in Sociology thesis at the European University at St. Petersburg.

4 The study showed that the mothers were the people responsible for the family’s food consumption.

5 This distinction between "new-type" risks (which are produced by highly developed technologies) and "old-type" risks (which, on the contrary, stem from underdeveloped technologies, lack of control, etc.), and their examples regarding food risks, will be discussed below in the paper.

6 All the names of informants are held in confidence but their social characteristics are not adulterated.

7 Here and below the source of information is indicated in curved brackets (from either an interview or Internet forum).

8 Head of the Department of children nutrition of the Research Institute for Nutrition of the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences.

9 All quotations from the interviews and forum discussions were translated from Russian to English. In citations from the forum the original punctuation and style of writing were reserved. It was not always possible to get full social characteristics of forum participants.

10 Traditional Russian sour milk beverage.

11 URL: Consulted on 15 June 2008

12 Where organic products in Europe cost on average 20-60% more than conventional ones, in Russia this difference can be 300-500%. URL: Consulted on 17.01.2012.

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Olga Gromasheva, « Interpretation of food risks by mothers of kindergarten children in St. Petersburg, Russia, and their strategies of risk handling  », Anthropology of food [En ligne], S7 | 2012, mis en ligne le 10 janvier 2013, consulté le 05 juillet 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Olga Gromasheva

researcher at the Department of Agricultural, Food and Agro-Environmental Sciences of the Pisa University (Italy), PhD candidate of the Wageningen School of Social Sciences (Wageningen University, The Netherlands),

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