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date: 25 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

Food safety has been a critical issue from the beginning of human existence, but more recently the nature of concerns over food safety has changed. Further, in terms of both scale and impact, the modern problems of food safety are very different from the issues that confronted the past. For example, especially since the late 1990s, society has faced food safety crises and scares arising from threats as diverse as bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE), dioxin contamination, melamine-tainted infant milk formula, and so forth. These phenomena show that an ever-increasing variety of contaminants such as chemical and microbial agents can potentially find their way into the food supply, while novel foods such as GM foods and cultured meat add new challenges when it comes to certifying food safety.

Food safety has become a particularly complex issue in the context of the global economy because the governance of food safety is entangled with several larger trends at the global scale, including (a) trade liberalization in the 1980s; (b) the adoption of a risk analysis framework by global and national food safety administrations; and (c) the spread of food quality management regimes throughout the entire food industry, from food production to processing and retail. Furthermore, there are vast differences between developed and developing countries with respect to both food safety regulations and prominent food safety issues. These facts, combined with the borderless nature of sociotechnical food systems, contribute to a situation in which it is extremely challenging for any individual country to manage food safety issues within its jurisdiction. This observation underscores the importance of global food safety governance, a goal which is in itself difficult to achieve.

Two especially significant dilemmas have emerged within the existing situation vis-à-vis global food safety governance. The first is the challenges arising from the tensions inherent in a “modern” food safety governance approach, a model that combines a science-based strategy of dealing with food safety problems, on one hand, and the ideal of participatory democracy, on the other hand, in trying to deal with food safety issues. Problems arise from the contradictions between the science-based risked management approach, focused narrowly on monitoring and mitigation of hazards, and the wide-ranging complexity of the social, political, and interpersonal factors that shape people’s real-world concerns about food safety. The second is cross-border application of risk management to food imports in the Global North and its implications for exporting countries in the Global South. Problems arise from disparities in approaches and expectations regarding food safety between the Global North and the South. These two dilemmas have one thing in common: Each inherently contains challenges arising from internal contractions, as when the goal of achieving sound and consistent solutions to food safety issues is pursued alongside the goal of building a broad consensus across varying actors whose values, norms, needs, and interests differ and who are situated in differing socioeconomic and political contexts. Drawing insights from the sociology of agriculture and food and from social studies of science, an attempt is made to unpack the societal and policy challenges of food safety governance in a globalized economy.

Keywords: cross-border risk management, food safety, food safety governance, globalization of agri-food systems, food standards, risk perceptions, trust, values

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