Stakeholders in the Food Regulatory Sphere – A Quick Guide


By McDowell Purcell \ In News

Due to an increased public awareness of health and environmental risks, the growing demands of civil society to have a role in the process of risk management, and the explicit acknowledgement of both academics and policy makers that values, as well as facts, play a role in all types of risk decisions, stakeholder involvement in the regulation of health an environmental risk has been gaining momentum in Europe since the mid-1990s. In terms of food and food safety, consumers food safety 2represent a major group of stakeholders with other important stakeholder groups including non-governmental organizations such as consumer associations, environmental groups, industry groups, food manufacturers, policy makers, risk managers, public and private research organizations, and the media.

What is a stakeholder?

A stakeholder can be defined generally as any individual, end-user or organisation who has an interest in a particular issue. It is important to take into consideration the views and concerns of relevant stakeholders in policy making as:

  • Stakeholders’ issues and concerns represent indicators of policy demands;
  • Stakeholders’ concerns help to identify useful insights, and values which may be included in the policy making process;
  • Taking stakeholder concerns into account may increase societal trust in risk management practices and the safety of the food supply.

The evolving role of stakeholders in EU Food Governance

By the end of the 1990s, and as a result of a series of food scares, serious problems of legitimacy and transparency in the decision-making processes related to food and food safety in the EU had been identified. At this point, food risk management decision-making was viewed as being primarily influenced by economic interests. Moreover, the view of the pre-BSE process of producing scientific advice on food as opaque and secretive predominated. As a result, the Commission, with its focus on achievement of the Single Market, faced the dual criticism of favouring industrial interests over the protection of public health, while also failing to take sufficient notice of the public’s diverse attitudes and values regarding food and food safety.

The answer to this waning of public trust in food safety was a corresponding ‘two-body solution’ . First, the independence of science-based risk assessment would be reasserted. Second, a recognition of the importance of transparent legislation and effective public consultation as essential elements of building greater consumer confidence would be reaffirmed. It is in this context that various efforts to involve a wider array of stakeholders in EU food risk governance have gained momentum since the adoption of the General Food Law at the beginning of 2002.

Placed in this type of contemporary regulatory environment, where stakeholder involvement is emphasized, the roles of a set distinct stakeholder groups are set out and summarized below.

Consumers

As a major stakeholder group, the views of consumers and the role they play in the modern food regulatory process are of central importance in understanding the process of food regulation in the EU. But this growing role of consumers in the modern food regulatory process itself raises its own host of questions surrounding different types of representativeness and the tension between the frequently inchoate and nebulous nature of consumer views and the degree of influence they should be allowed to have on the predominantly technocratic approach to deliberation and debate relating to food and nutrition policy.

However, the fact that this debate as to whether or not, for example, EFSA’s interaction with a plethora of stakeholders is compatible with its formal mandate and declared aim of safeguarding the independence of risk assessment (with some academics viewing the opening up of expert meetings as giving rise to a potential for diversion from hard-headed and focused deliberations among experts) speaks to a significant shift from what appeared to some as a  ‘black box’ in the past, to what is now a process, that has as its central tenets, principles of transparency and accountability existing alongside high scientific quality and efficiency.

Viewed in this way, consumers as a stakeholder group can be taken as inhabiting the role of encouraging increased transparency, accountability and accessibility of the modern food regulatory process – the aim being legitimation of, and public trust in, the policy process – as well as ensuring a continued focus on consumer protection and public health.

Food Business

Made up of approximately 310,000 mostly small and medium sized enterprises employing around 4.8 million people, the food industry sector is one of the largest and most important manufacturing sectors of the European economy with a total manufacturing turnover of in and around  1.2 Trillion Euro.  It is also the case that after Washington D.C., Brussels is the second most lobbied government centre in the world, with 90% of the 20,000 lobbyists working in Brussels employed by industry.

In an increasingly consumer-driven food regulatory environment, food business organisations participate actively in the food regulatory process by lobbying various institutions including the European Parliament and Commission. Indeed,  EFSA has felt it necessary to publish a discussion paper titled ‘Transformation to an open EFSA” in response to repeated calls by the media, the scientific community and civil society organisations to become more transparent about its work and the nature and degree of involvement of industry experts in its deliberations.

Whereas in the past, lobbying activities took place in the context of food security and a politics of production, this exercise is now carried out in an environment of ‘collective consumption’ where consumers demands are more complex, diverse, and politicized.

This has given rise to a whole host of new challenges for a fragmented sector that has had to adjust to the global integration of food supply chains, the growing concentration of food retailers, the ever-increasing interest by consumers in food quality howsoever defined, increasing pressure to make more accessible and transparent the processes through which industry experts are involved in the policy-making process, and a farm-to-fork- system of regulation that places added responsibilities on the food business operator.

The role of this stakeholder group can therefore be taken as one of recognizing that although consumer confidence is a key ingredient of the modern European food regulatory process, legislative proposals still require a strong factual/scientific underpinning. Viewed in this way, the food business stakeholder group can be taken as inhabiting the role of balancing or counteracting a shift in focus to a more heavily regulated and consumer-centric food regulatory process.

Food Regulatory and Enforcement Agencies

In the modern food regulatory process, food regulatory and enforcement agencies are tasked with implementing what is a dynamic and enormous body of legislative provisions, which includes implementing rules formulated through the deliberations, voting and decisions of a number of regulatory committees, use of enforcement measures at EU level, and a system of surveillance operated at both national and EU level.

It has been noted that, in most developed countries, food safety regulation has focused on the imposition of standards that specify how food products should be produced and/or their final safety level. However, the role played by regulatory and enforcement agencies can be seen to be changing, and a number of commentators note how the nature of food safety regulation (and enforcement) has been evolving since the 1990s, with food operators frequently being given more responsibility to ensure the safety of their own products. This has given rise to a new type of governance structure that requires greater degrees of coordination between private and public agents in order to ensure compliance with food safety regulations.

Summary

The modern food regulatory process continues to develop in an environment where food remains both socially and economically significant – the agri-food sector continues to be a highly important sector of the EU economy and food safety, as well as quality, continues to be of central to concern to consumers who continue to call for the information on food (and food chains) that can be trusted.

The business community has responded by continuing to aggressively lobby EU institutions and agencies while also regarding the call for safety from consumers and government as important driving forces for continuous innovation that focus on implementing systems to improve product quality and safety. Meanwhile, a vast and complex body of rules and regulations concerning food safety are administered by regulatory and enforcement agencies that now encourage compliance via greater cooperation and coordination from food operators.

Authors: James Gallagher and JP McDowell