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date: 22 February 2018

Food Safety Policy: Transnational, Hybrid, Wicked

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

According to the World Health Organization, between 2010 and 2015 there were an estimated 582 million cases of 22 different foodborn enteric diseases. Over 40% of people suffering from enteric diseases caused by contaminated food were children under 5 years of age. Highly industrialized livestock production processes bring antibiotic resistances that could result in an era in which common infections and minor injuries that have been treatable for decades can kill once again. Unsafe food also poses major economic risks. For example, Germany’s E. coli outbreak in 2011 reportedly caused $1.3 billion in losses for farmers and industries. Food safety policy is meant to ensure that food does not endanger human health—along the entire food chain through which food is produced, stored, transported, processed, and prepared. In an interdependent world of globalized trade and health risks, food safety is an extraordinarily complex policy issue, situated at the intersection of trade, agriculture, and health policy.

While traditionally considered domestic issues, outbreaks of BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) and other major food safety crises, before and around the turn of the millennium, highlighted the need for transnational regulation and coordination for ensuring food safety within regional and global single markets. As a result, food safety has received ample scholarly attention as a critical case of the transboundary regulation of often uncertain risks. The global architecture of food production also gives food safety policy an international and interactive character. Some countries or regions, like the European Union, act as standard setters, whereas other, newly industrialized countries like China struggle to “do their homework,” and the poorest regions of the world benefit little. Although national regulatory approaches differ considerably in the degrees to which they rely on self-regulation by the market, overall, the sheer extent of the underlying policy problem makes it impossible to tackle food safety solely through purely public regulation. Private regulation and co-regulation play an influential role for standard setting, implementation, and enforcement of food safety policy. Notwithstanding, the state ultimately remains responsible for safeguarding food safety as a public good.

The entanglement of several interrelated policy sectors, the need for coordination and action at multiple levels—global, regional, national, and local, and the involvement of actors from the public and private, for-profit and non-profit fields, are the reasons why governance of food safety policy is characterized by a considerable hybridity and requires vertical and horizontal policy integration. More recently, scholarship has increasingly scrutinized how the resulting multiple and sometimes conflicting actor rationalities and the overlap of several regulatory roles affect effectiveness and legitimacy in the decisions on and implementation of food safety policy. By highlighting issues like regulatory capture and deficient enforcement systems, this research suggests another implication of the hybridization of food safety governance; namely, that enforcement systems increasingly share the characteristics of a wicked problem. Along with complexity, and high and notoriously uncertain risks, the multiple actors involved often diverge in their very definitions of the problems and their strategic intentions. The major task lies in designing recipes for integrated, context-sensitive, and resilient policy responses.