According to the World Health Organization, between 2010 and 2015 there were an estimated 582 million cases of 22 different foodborne enteric diseases. Over 40% people suffering from enteric diseases caused by contaminated food were children aged under five years. Highly industrialized livestock production processes have brought along antibiotic resistances that could soon result in an era in which common infections and minor injuries that have been treatable for decades can once again kill. Unsafe food also poses major economic risks. For example, Germany’s E. coli outbreak in 2011 reportedly caused US$1.3 billion in losses for farmers and industries. Food safety policy ensures 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, agricultural, and health policies.
Although traditionally considered a domestic issue, bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) and other major food safety crises before and around the turn of the millennium highlighted the need for transnational regulation and coordination to ensure food safety in regional and global 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, for example, the European Union, act as standard setters, whereas newly industrialized countries, such as China, struggle to “do their homework,” and the poorest regions of the world strive for market access. Although national regulatory approaches differ considerably in the degree 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 public regulation. Therefore, private regulation and co-regulation play an influential role in the standard setting, implementation, and enforcement of food safety policy.
The entanglement of several interrelated policy sectors, the need for coordination and action at multiple—global, regional, national, local—levels, and the involvement of actors from the public and private, for-profit and nonprofit fields, are the reasons why the governance of food safety policy is characterized by considerable hybridity and also requires both vertical and horizontal policy integration. Scholarship has increasingly scrutinized how the resulting multiple, sometimes conflicting, actor rationalities and the overlap of several regulatory roles affect effectiveness and legitimacy in the decision-making and implementation of food safety policy. By highlighting issues such as regulatory capture and deficient enforcement systems, this research suggests another implication of the hybridization of food safety governance, namely, that the latter increasingly shares the characteristics of a wicked problem. Next to complexity and both high and notoriously uncertain risks, the multiple actors involved often diverge in their very definitions of the problem and strategic intentions. The major task ahead lies in designing recipes for integrated, context-sensitive, and resilient policy responses.