How Food Safety Regulations Produce the Producers

For anybody who loves it, cooking is creative. Food processing—essentially, cooking for the market—is an extremely diverse and dynamic sector. What does this mean for market regulation? How do governments regulate continuously changing practices?

The architecture of food safety regulations is in many respects a unique experiment: Regulations depart from the notion of omniscient technocrats and hold out the possibility of a new form of stakeholder involvement in rule making. Whether or not this experiment is working is essentially an open question – and a political one, as it involves choices between competing social goals.

Food safety regulations in the US are based on the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) system, which refers to a preventative approach to addressing food safety hazards that has been widely adopted in Europe, North America, and in many other economies selling into these markets since the 1990s. In the US, processors of meat, poultry, and seafood have been legally required to follow the provisions of the HACCP system since 1998.

If you have not heard of HACCP, 2013 is a good year to learn about it –its aims, how it functions, who likes it, and who does not. The 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) legislated that HACCP principles should be extended beyond meat and poultry, to most of the food processing activities regulated by Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In January 2013, the FDA published a draft proposal, the Proposed Rule for Preventive Controls for Human Food. (Comments can be submitted until September 16, 2013.) These rules will shape what can and cannot end up on our dinner tables in the future.

Two central features of the HACCP system are central to understanding how food safety regulations function. First, the responsibility for guaranteeing food safety lies with producers. Producers design, implement, and constantly verify plant- and product-specific plans that attest how various hazards are dealt with at each stage of production. This approach to food safety regulation replaced an older approach, known as “command and control,” which relied largely on testing the integrity of random samples of finished products and regulating sanitary operating procedures.

A second central feature of the HACCP system is its scientific approach to controlling foodborne hazards. The “scientification” of food safety regulation means that every regulatory decision and every plant-level procedure must be justified with scientifically valid studies. The intrinsic strength of such a system is that, in principal, old rules can be challenged with new studies. Producers can conduct their own scientific studies to justify a new product or processing method, which can then serve as the basis for how this process is regulated. Rather than a finite set of rules, HACCP plans are intrinsically flexible and the regulatory system as a whole can rely on an expanding library of studies. At best, “HACCP plans are living, breathing documents,” in the words of an FSIS regulator.

Yet, the HACCP system does not work equally well for everybody. Many, though not all, small and very small processing plants have found it difficult to adapt to the world of HACCP, to interpret and conduct scientific studies, and deal with the cost of compliance. These costs typically include the costs of designing HACCP-plans, updating existing equipment, and validating its HACCP plans. For small plants, the costs of HACCP are a priori significant. Unlike large establishments, plants with smaller output volumes are far less able to absorb the costs of ongoing product testing and validation the HACCP system requires.

HACCP is also particularly unfriendly to products that rely on uncommon, “non-standard,” traditional, and artisanal processing methods. For less common products and processing steps, there are few, or more likely, no existing scientific studies that a producer can rely on to prove that they make meat safe. Artisanal and traditional products are a way for small processors to differentiate themselves in a fiercely competitive sector, and they are in increasingly high demand. Yet it is often impossible for a small local plant with slim profit margins to justify the cost of a scientific study to validate an uncommon product.

While HACCP is challenging for all small producers, the system has uneven effects. On the one hand, some small producers have the skills and the resources to incorporate HACCPs requirements into existing operations. HACCP is the world they live in. These producers can interpret and commission scientific studies and they have modern facilities and can absorb the cost of continuous self-monitoring. Likely, this type of small producer succeeds and is able to benefit from the flexibility of HACCP, because its products are sold at relatively high profit margins that make up for small batch production. For these processors, and notably for the consumers of their high-value niche products, the HACCP system can work beautifully, and as intended.

On the other hand, the HACCP system has also contributed to the demise of another type of food processing facility. When HACCP was first implemented, a significant number of small meat processing plants withdrew from inspection. Furthermore, in the nine years that followed implementation (2001-2009), the number of USDA federally inspected small slaughter establishments declined from 633 to 549, a 13 percent drop. The shrinking number of small meat processors exacerbates an already pronounced trend toward the consolidation of the meat processing industry. This means the HACCP system has produced the kind of producer that can viably exist in the system: the small producer that has the right kind of human and material resources to make the flexibility of the system work.

The politics that surround food safety regulations clearly reflect this outcome. Of course, food safety regulations respond to strong political demands for government oversight of the conditions under which food is produced. Yet while we might all agree that we want safe food, the politics of food safety regulations weigh the complicated and uneven effects of HACCP against that demand. Political pressure to consider the experience of small processors has led the FDA to propose different options for small-scale exemptions. Current debates that surround this issue and the option the agency settles on will determine how the experiment of food safety regulations shapes up in the future. In short, the issue is the food on your plate and the time is now.

Feature Photo: cc/(Shreyans Bhansali)'
Susanne Wengle
Susanne Wengle is a post-Doctoral research fellow at the University of Chicago’s political science department. Her research examines how markets are regulated and how regulations emerge and evolve in political and social contexts. Her current project looks in detail at regulations that shape agriculture and food production in the US and Russia. She has published on various aspects of the economic transformation in Russia – on the political economy of infrastructure liberalization, on welfare reforms and on the politics of expertise. Wengle holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California Berkeley.

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