THE PSYCHOLOGIST WHO’S MAPPING THE UK FOOD CHAIN
When Moira Dean came to Queen’s as a lecturer in 2007 she found herself taking up a unique role – as a psychologist working in the School of Biological Sciences.
‘And I’m still the only one,’ she says. ‘At the time the School had an undergraduate course on food quality safety and nutrition and in the third year there was a module on the psychology of consumer behaviour. That was where I fitted in.’
PHYSICS - HER ORIGINAL ACADEMIC INTEREST
But this was not her original academic interest. She has a degree in Physics from Imperial College London. Psychology came later – first with a degree from the Open University and then a Masters and a PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Surrey where she worked for seven years as a postdoc before joining Queen’s.
‘My PhD was in genetically modified food which was coming on the market for the first time. The project was funded by MAFF [Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food] because they wanted to look at the perceptions of the public and their willingness or otherwise to buy GM food. Monsanto were trying to sell it to us. There was a big backlash about so-called Frankenstein food so it was all very topical and useful for my PhD.’
After that, she worked on several EU-funded projects – on whole grain consumption, organic foods, and who buys them. ‘My work was on risk perceptions, risk communication, but when I came to Queen’s there wasn’t anyone doing that kind of research. There was research on the measurement and the assessment of risk but not on risk perception.’
FOCUSING ON FOOD SAFETY
Now Professor, Moira’s focus is on Food Safety and Nutrition and her work is feeding an increasingly important strand for the Institute for Global Food Security – research around diet.
She has been involved in several major projects led by Safefood, the all-Ireland body. She was Principal Investigator in Good Days, Bad Days, which looked at the way people shopped, the choices they made, and what practices could be encouraged to help them shop more healthily. There were also projects looking at portion size and the effect of food marketing on the preschool child.
Moira says, ‘You can give up smoking but you can’t give up food. Eating is something we have to do but we have to modify what we do. That’s quite hard for people. Again, food isn’t just something from which you get nutrient value. There’s so much tied into it, culturally and socially, and that’s partly why it’s so difficult for us to change eating habits.’
WITHIN THE INSTITUTE
Moira is working closely on food integrity with her colleague Professor Chris Elliott who led the UK Government review into the 2013 horsemeat scandal. ‘That changed a lot of things for us. During the review Chris had to interview everybody to find out the information, which was a very different kind of methodology. So now, while he looks at the food chain, in terms of traceability and authenticity, we’re also plotting the human chain – from the farmer to the retailer. We have a PhD student funded by a government scholarship who has interviewed everyone involved in the beef chain.
‘In the case of beef, public perception is that there’s one farmer. But it’s not as simple as that. Calves are born on one farm, then they may go to another while they grow and to another to be fattened. So there you have three farms. And in processing there are also several different stages with animals coming in and going out.
‘We’ve plotted the whole of the UK beef chain, something which hasn’t been done before, but you need that kind of mapping to understand the vulnerability, where things can go wrong. Next will come the fish chain and the wheat chain. All these chains are different. There are different laws and regulations, different methods of transport, different countries involved.’
Moira is also working with Dr Niamh O’Connell whose focus is on farm animal health and welfare. ‘We’re finding out why farmers or companies practise the way they do and how we can change that.’
As she sums it up – ‘It’s about people. If you want to find out about human beings, their attitudes, their behaviour – that’s where my research comes in.’