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The universe of food quality

Claudio Peri
DISTAM, Sezione di Tecnologie Alimentari, Universita` degli Studi di Milano, Via Celoria, 2 Milano, Italy
Available online 26 April 2005
Abstract
The universe of food quality is presented as a system of product requirements both material and immaterial, related to the prod-
uct in itself, the production context, the product-packaging system, and the product-market system. Also, the dynamics of the qual-
ity system is shown as a relationship between processing conditions, product characteristics, product performance, and consumer
requirements. All this poses the problem of methods and strategies for studying/optimising the overall quality of food products.
Two approaches are presented: (a) pyramiding by comparing pairs of antithetic consumer requirements, and (b) minimizing rejec-
tion as a more useful approach than maximizing preferences. It is suggested that sensory science be considered as the science of
quality perception.
2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Food quality; Sensory; Consumer
1. Introduction
The crucial problem facing science today is its ability
to cope with complexity (Bocchi & Ceruti, 1992). Des-
cartes second rule for properly conducting ones rea-
son, i.e. breaking down a problem into its component
parts, which for three centuries has been the most cen-
tral principle of scientic practice and has caused the
multiplication of academic disciplines and specializa-
tions, no longer seems adequate for the study (and even
less for the management) of complex phenomena. It is
more productive to study a system as a whole, according
to an integrated approach, than to apply a reductionist
approach by analysing the parts. Developments in Sys-
tem Thinking are a response to this evolution and are
now widespread in the eld of food quality (Checkland,
1994; Peri, 1999). In the search for new methods for deal-
ing eciently with the complexity of real problems, Fun-
towicz and Ravetz (1994) have proposed an interesting
denition of post-normal science as the science provid-
ing expedient solutions to complex problems, under the
pressure of multiple and often conicting interests, in
the presence of dierent points of view and values. Basi-
cally, many of the problems related to consumer science
conform to this denition. Recent studies on the func-
tioning of the human brain prove that Descartes rule
is not only inadequate from an epistemological point of
view, but even from a biological point of view since it
fails to correspond to the functioning of our brain, which
is a highly powerful machine of synthesis and integration
(Damasio, 1996).
The eld of Sensory Science cannot elude the task of
critically reassessing its experimental methods and ap-
proaches in relation to such evolutionary thought. Nor
can developments in the eld be considered purely in
terms of further specialized fragmentation of its content.
Instead they should be treated as an integral part of a
wider context of scientic knowledge, of professional
competence and of ethical responsibility. The title of this
paper suggests that it is opportune to consider food
quality as a universe, whose elements and rules are here
briey outlined.
0950-3293/$ - see front matter 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.foodqual.2005.03.002
E-mail address: claudio.peri@fastwebnet.it
www.elsevier.com/locate/foodqual
Food Quality and Preference 17 (2006) 38
2. A denition of food quality
In utilitarian terms, quality can be dened as tness
for use or, more appropriately for foodstus, tness
for consumption, which leads to what the experts in
ISO standards call customer or consumer satisfac-
tion. Thus, quality can be described as the requirements
necessary to satisfy the needs and expectations of the
consumer.
3. An analytical model of food quality
An analytical model dening food quality as a set of
consumer requirements is presented in Fig. 1. Consumer
requirements include:
1. Safety requirements, which are generally expressed as
the absence of risk factors. Any failure to respect
safety requirements represents a risk for consumer
health and is punishable by law.
2. Commodity requirements, by which is meant the con-
formity of a product to its denition. These are estab-
lished by law, voluntary regulations or customary
practices. Any failure to comply with these require-
ments should be considered fraudulent and represents
a legally punishable oence. In the eyes of consumers,
safety requirements and conformity to commodity
standards come together in the conception of authen-
ticity and genuineness.
3. Nutritional requirements are obviously extremely
important because the main purpose of eating is to sat-
isfy nutritional needs. The recent growing interest in
the health-giving properties of some foods is based
on observations that their regular consumption has
benecial eects on health and strengthens the bodys
defences against a number of chronic diseases (cardio-
vascular diseases, tumours, aging, etc). The foods that
have these properties are called functional foods.
The legal requirements for safety and commodity,
together with those relating to nutrition, are implicit
requirements because consumers take them for
granted. They are measurable, and therefore veriable
and certiable, but they cannot be perceived and this
raises apprehensions in the minds of consumers. Any
news of a health risk or fraud gives rise to strong reac-
tions that may lead to the rejection of the incriminated
product and the ensuing crisis of entire sectors of
production.
4. Sensory requirements. The fact that sensory require-
ments are perceived make them an important means
of interaction between products and consumers. As
it is the brain that transforms sensations into percep-
tions, our sensory perceptions take place in a space
that is closely connected with other brain functions
and contents, such as memory, culture, values, emo-
tions, etc. These complicated crossroads bring
together our knowledge or memory of a food and
our sensory reactions to it, thus creating an integrated
perception that determines the ideas and emotions we
inevitably associate with a given food. This joint sen-
sory and psychological perception of quality is one of
the most important areas for the development of food
sciences, and is certainly more complex and fascinat-
ing than nutritional or food safety studies.
The combination of nutritional and sensory
requirements leads to what we call biological quality,
and represents the essential core of food quality. The
separation of nutrition and sensory science is one of
the clearest examples of how the reductionism of
modern science may contribute to widening rather
than reducing the gap between science and reality.
The set of safety, commodity, nutrition and sen-
sory requirements constitutes the framework of the
s t n e m e r i u q e r y t e f a S . 1
s d r a d n a t s y t i d o m m o c o t y t i m r o f n o C . 2
s t n e m e r i u q e r l a n o i t i r t u N . 3
s t n e m e r i u q e r t c u d o r P
e h t ( ) t a h w
s t n e m e r i u q e r y r o s n e S . 4
e h t g n i n r e c n o c s t n e m e r i u q e R . 5
production context
s t n e m e r i u q e r l a c i g o l o h c y s P
e h t ( e r e h w d n a w o h )
s t n e m e r i u q e r l a c i h t E . 6
d o o f a s a t c u d o r p e h T
s n e d e o m o h
n o i t a c i f i t r e C . 7 s t n e m e r i u q e r e e t n a r a u G
e h t ( o h w ) y t i l i b a e c a r T . 8
s t n e m e r i u q e r c i t e h t s e a d n a l a n o i t c n u F . 9
g n i g a k c a p f o
s t n e m e r i u q e r n o i t a m r o f n I . 0 1
e h t f o s t n e m e r i u q e R
m e t s y s g n i g a k c a p / t c u d o r p
e c n e i n e v n o C . 1 1
y t i l i b a l i a v A . 2 1
n a s a t c u d o r p e h T
e d a r t f o t c e j b o
s u c i m o n o c e o o m o h
e h t f o s t n e m e r i u q e R
m e t s y s t e k r a m / t c u d o r p e c i r P . 3 1
Fig. 1. An analytical model of food quality. From Peri et al. (2004).
4 C. Peri / Food Quality and Preference 17 (2006) 38
quality of the product in itself. However, consumer
expectations involve more than satisfying these
requirements insofar as the satisfaction of fundamen-
tal dietary needs leads to the emergence of other
requirements that may play a determining role in con-
sumer choices. They include:
5. Requirements concerning the production context. Indi-
cations concerning the origin or tradition of a prod-
uct, or the use of organic agriculture, have a strong
impact on consumers. This is essentially a psycholog-
ical and emotive eect that sets a food in resonance
with expectations whose roots lie in memories, cul-
ture and the vision we have of life, nature and the
environment. We can describe the requirements of
context as the immaterial requirements of quality.
They primarily satisfy psychological and cultural
needs and their appeal to consumers does not depend
on the what of a food product, but on the how,
when and where it was produced.
6. Ethical requirements. These relate to the system of
values that conditions consumer behaviours. Ethical
requirements include organic agriculture, the defence
of the environment, the defence of biodiversity
against mass production, the well-being of animals,
and so on. In relation to these requirements, it is
becoming increasingly evident that the word con-
sumer is inadequate. None of us is really a mere con-
sumer; we are people and citizens with complex
desires and visions of the world. We would not like
to over-emphasise this aspect to the point of making
it seem banal: the often hypocritical and spectacular-
ised references to great values made by modern civili-
sation risk changing society from one that consumes
goods to one that consumes values. But we cannot
deny that a new ethical sensitivity is beginning to
overlay cultural and material sensitivities about
foods, and we believe that all of us should try to
understand whether- and to what extentethical
questions are involved in our own specic and specia-
lised areas.
The requirements of production context and ethical
requirements cannot be veried or perceived: there is
no way that eating or analysing an apple will tell us
whether the rules of biological agriculture have been
respected, just as there is no way that eating or analy-
sing a hamburger will tell us whether the animals it
came from were raised in accordance with the rules
of animal well-being. They are therefore highly sus-
ceptible to fraud and deceit, which is all the more seri-
ous because this violates expectations concerning
ethical values. It is for this reason that the third group
of requirements, which are called guarantee require-
ments, is becoming increasingly important.
7. Guarantee requirements. The certication and trace-
ability procedures so frequently referred to in the
most recent European food legislation are nothing
more than instruments oering consumer guarantees.
Unlike the traditional certication methods based on
product analysis, they are based on the certication of
behaviours and, in the nal analysis, of people. Trust
does not come from a relationship between a person
and a product, but from a person-to-person relation-
ship. Nothing can guarantee us more than our per-
sonal trust in the people supplying us with food,
and their credibility is based on our perception of their
professional competence and moral reliability. This is
why, after the intrinsic requirements of quality (the
what of a product) and context (the where and
how it has been obtained), a consumers perception
of the quality of a food also involves requirements
concerning the who producing it.
Finally, it is necessary to consider the fact that we
are not oered food products in themselves, but in
an indivisible combination of product and packaging
presented in a market context where logistic and eco-
nomic requirements are fundamental.
8. The requirements of the product/packaging system
facilitate product recognition, marketing and use.
The requirements associated with packaging also
include aesthetic requirements concerning its presen-
tation, and consumer information conveyed by the
label. Ease of use has become a decisive factor,
whether it concerns the transportation, conservation,
preparation or use of the product (convenience foods).
Consumers tend to prefer products that are easier to
handle or use, and their desire for convenience is the
most fertile ground for marketing experts.
9. Requirements of the product/market system. These
include the availability of the product at the right
time, in the right place and in the desired amount.
They also include its price because the price-to-qual-
ity ratio is the nal synthesis of a consumers percep-
tions determining preferences and choice.
In conclusion, Fig. 1 can be divided into two parts:
one containing the requirements of the product as a
food involving us as Homo edens (consumers?); and
the other the requirements of a product as marketed ob-
ject involving us as Homo oeconomicus (customers?).
Fig. 1 stimulates a variety of reections and, above
all, reminds us of the need for humility, one of the least
popular virtues among scientists. This issue is presented
ironically in Fig. 2.
The experience suggests that it is very dicult to rank
the importance of the requirements shown in Fig. 1. The
only thing that can be said with any certainty is that a
serious failure to meet any one of the 13 requirements
can lead to the rejection of a product even if all of the
other 12 are fully satised. On the other hand, it is also
true that provided restrictive conditions for the other
requirements are not present, excellence in only one of
the 13 requirements may be sucient to guarantee the
C. Peri / Food Quality and Preference 17 (2006) 38 5
success of a product. One other factor that makes the
system truly complex is that a deciency in one require-
ment may be compensated for by an abundance in an-
other: the expectation of a nutritional benet may
make a poor sensory quality acceptable, just as an opti-
mal sensory quality may prompt us to ignore whether or
not a product has any nutritional benet at all. However
strange it may seem, even safety is a replaceable require-
ment, as can be seen from the fact that giving up health
and safety in favour of pleasure is a vice that is as old as
humanity itself.
4. A dynamic model of food quality
The model presented in Fig. 1 does not exhaust the
complexity of quality because everything that we have
said concerning the requirements for quality forms part
of a dynamic system in which nothing ever remains the
same, and nothing happens to one part that does not
have repercussions on the system as a whole.
This concept is schematically illustrated in Fig. 3, in
which the universe of quality is represented as a circuit
going from consumers to producers and vice versa. In
this circuit:consumers express expectations and needs:
that is, requirements; these requirements must be sat-
ised by the performances of the product; the perfor-
mances must derive from characteristics, and nally,
characteristics are obtained through the control of the
production process.
This model makes a fundamental distinction between
characteristics and performances.
Characteristics are structural and objective data (i.e.
attributable to the object), and do not change by chang-
ing the observer or user. They include data concerning
shape, weight, size, structure and composition.
On the contrary, performances are functional and
subjective data: i.e. they relate to the subject and do
not exist except in the interaction between products
and consumers. They include sensory, nutritional,
safety, aesthetic and psychological data.
Ensuring an adequate correspondence between a
products performance and its characteristics requires a
continuous comparison between what we learn about
the product itself, and what we learn about the sensitiv-
ity, expectations and reactions of consumers.
The distinction between characteristics and perfor-
mances also highlights a problem of communication be-
tween consumers who speak about performances and
producers who speak about characteristics: this is a seri-
ous semantic problem, and confusing characteristics and
performances generates misunderstandings and ambigu-
ities even in food legislation.
On the basis of what is shown in Figs. 1 and 3, we can
consider quality not only as a set but also as a ow
of data and requirements, which leads us to the problem
of complexity and methodology.
5. The problem of methodology
As mentioned in the introduction, Descartes second
rule assumes that breaking down a problem into its
component parts will not distort the studied phenome-
non. However, studying consumer preferences exclu-
sively in terms of sensory or any other aspect or
requirement of quality certainly distorts reality and they
are inadequate for the handling of concrete issues. In or-
der to solve the concrete problems related to the plan-
ning, evaluation and use of quality concepts more
eectively, we must attempt to found a new epistemol-
ogy. This implies shifting our attention from the require-
ments to the properties of the requirements: for
example, it is necessary to consider whether we are
speaking of characteristics or properties, be they mea-
surable or not, veriable or not, controllable or not, per-
ceptible or implicitbecause it is these dierent
properties that make them suited to play dierent roles
: n i s t r e p x E
y t e f a S d o o F
n o i t i r t u N
e c n e i c S y r o s n e S
n o i t i d a r t d o o F
m e t s y S y t i l a u Q
g n i g a k c a P
n o i t a c i n u m m o C
n i t e k r a M g
l a i c u r c e h t t a h t r e d i s n o c
a f o y t i l a u q e h t f o s t c e p s a
. e r a t c u d o r p d o o f
y t e f a S d o o F
y t i l a u q l a n o i t i r t u N
y t i l a u q y r o s n e S
n o i t i d a r T
y t i l i b a e c a r T d n a n o i t a c i f i t r e C
g n i g a k c a P
n o i t a c i n u m m o C
n i t e k r a M g
Fig. 2. Descartes error (the weakness of the reductionism).
6 C. Peri / Food Quality and Preference 17 (2006) 38
in planning quality, managing processes, and interpret-
ing the expectations and preferences of consumers. We
should not only ask ourselves what the sensory descrip-
tors of a product are (this is a problem of specialist sci-
ence), but what are the characteristics, properties and
limitations of sensory information in comparison with
ethical, nutritional or commercial information. We
should think less about the characteristics and functions
of foods, which is a rst order conceptual system and the
one we are used to, and more about the properties of a
property or the characteristics of a characteristic, which
is a second order and more general conceptual system.
As yet, there is no theory capable of organizing the
various elements that constitute the situation we have
described. This means that the development and overall
improvement of the existing system for regulating food
quality depend upon trial and error rather than on the
coherent pursuit of selected objectives. Two concepts
based on this new integrated and holistic vision of food
quality are presented below. They do not represent a
methodological proposal but merely a contribution to
the debate concerning the direction of research into food
quality.
5.1. Pyramiding
The rst concept is that of pyramiding, a method
of making an integrated evaluation of the requirements
of food quality. This involves progressively comparing
the perceptions and judgements concerning require-
ments in order to arrive, by means of further compari-
sons and reductions in complexity, at the summit that
represents the nal judgement.
In Fig. 4 the fundamental antitheses between food
quality requirements are represented as confrontation
in a knockout sports competition: the requirements of
material quality against those of immaterial quality, im-
plicit requirements against perceptible requirements,
guarantee and availability requirements against price
requirements, and in the nal synthesis, the require-
ments of Homo edens against those of Homo oeconomi-
cus. Sensory scientists are the only ones who can attempt
to climb this pyramid, because they are the only food
scientists who have developed investigative methods
suitable for handling such complex, complicated phe-
nomena as those characterising consumers perceptions.
The suggestions arising from a pyramiding approach,
are that:
(1) a complete overview/understanding of the require-
ments that inuence consumers preferences and
choices is needed (Fig. 1);
(2) the comparison between requirements should be
based on signicant antitheses between consumer
perceptions of the quality (Fig. 4).
5.2. From maximising acceptability to minimising
rejection, and conclusion
The second concept is that minimising rejection is a
more useful approach than maximising preferences. Say-
ing: these are the borders within which it is possible to
move without generating a rejection for the lack of a spe-
cic requirement is more productive than the reduction-
ist statement that this is the combination that maximises
the desirability or acceptability for one of the quality
requirements. This method suggests that we should
not polarise attention on a single quality requirement,
but consider each of them as an element of a more
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Fig. 3. A dynamic model of food quality.
C. Peri / Food Quality and Preference 17 (2006) 38 7
complex design. This creates a space of consent in
which it becomes possible to admit several requirements
as elements of preference and choice.
Reasoning on how to minimise rejection instead of
maximising preferences means getting down from our
specialist pedestals and opening a perspective of a more
reasonable and comprehensive optimisation. In this
way, synergistically, while researchers tend to dene
the space of quality acceptability, food manufacturers
can identify within that space the elements of distinction
and excellence which determine the specicity of their
product giving them a competitive edge. In conclusion,
sensory scientists are called upon to assess the impact
of all quality requirements, and not to concentrate their
attention exclusively on sensory or any other aspect of
quality.
In the light of this conclusion one can say that the
existing term of Sensory Science is inadequate as an
expression of the extent of their scientic interests. It
would be more appropriate to use the term Science of
Quality Perception, which should include all the aspects
that we have examined: i.e. not only the perception of
quality but also of safety; not just the perception of sen-
sory quality, but also of nutritional quality; not merely
the perception of material quality but also of immaterial
quality; not only the perception of traditions but also of
ethical values; not only the quality of the product in it-
self, but also that of the production and the commercial
context; not only quality as seen by homo edens, but also
as seen by homo oeconomicus. This enlarged awareness
of quality requirements embraces not only what the con-
sumer nds desirable but also what may guarantee a
sustainable development of the food (production) sys-
tem. Therefore, it represents not merely a scientic evo-
lution but also an evolution of the ethics of science.
Acknowledgement
I am greatly indebted to Erminio Monteleone for his
encouragement to write this paper and then for his help
in checking and improving the text.
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l a i r e t a M
s t n e m e r i u q e r
) n o i t i r t u N d n a y t e f a S (
l a i r e t a m m I
s t n e m e r i u q e r
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l a c i h t E
s t n e m e r i u q e r
s t n e m e r i u q e r s n e d e o m o H s t n e m e r i u q e r s u c i m o n o c e o o m o H
y r o s n e S
s t n e m e r i u q e r
y t i l i b a l i a v A e c i r P l a n o i t c n u F
s c i t e h t s e A d n a
f o s t n e m e r i u q e r
g n i g a k c a p
e e t n a r a u G
s t n e m e r i u q e r
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Fig. 4. Pyramiding.
8 C. Peri / Food Quality and Preference 17 (2006) 38