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date: 13 October 2019

Food Safety in a Global Economy: Policies and Concerns

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

Food is one of the most fundamental requirements to sustain life, but food safety cannot be taken for granted. While a variety of chemical and microbial agents can potentially find their way into the food supply, the emergence of novel food such as genetically modified and cultured food has raised challenges for how to evaluate its safety. Since the late 1990s, citizens of many nations have faced food safety crises and scares caused by health concerns arising from threats as diverse as bovine spongiform encephalitis (BSE), dioxin contamination, melamine-tainted infant milk formula, and so forth. Food safety issues can lead to social conflicts because food safety concerns are entangled with the values and norms of individuals and groups. The persistent controversy over genetically modified food is a good example of this. Food safety has become a particularly complex issue in the context of a global economy. To be specific, the condition of food safety governance 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, to retail. Furthermore, there are vast differences between the food safety regulations and the prominent food safety issues within developed and developing countries. These facts, combined with the accelerating pace of globalization and the borderless nature of sociotechnical food systems, contribute to the extreme challenges for individual countries to manage food safety issues within their jurisdictions. This observation underscores the importance of global food safety governance, a goal that is, in itself, difficult to achieve.

Within this context, two noteworthy dilemmas have emerged vis-à-vis global food safety governance. The first issue concerns the cross-border risk management of food imports in the Global North and its implications for exporting countries in the Global South. How has the adoption of a risk analysis framework and a structured decision-making process impacted producers in those countries? The second issue is the social controversy that arises from consumers’ increased consciousness of the role of food safety in public health. These controversies frequently hinge on whether proposed food technologies meet societal needs and on concerns about the sufficiency of scientific knowledge to assure safety. Observations made on these issues from the perspectives of macro-sociology, risk studies, and social studies of science suggest that design of future food safety governance must incorporate careful examination of three components in particular: (a) the use of sound scientific information; (b) the management and communication of food safety risks; and (c) the balance between improving access to safe food for consumers and maintaining socioeconomic viability for producers.