Food safety governance revolutions in aftermath of BSE crisis

Press release

SAFE FOODS book publication

Published on
March 20, 2007

Food safety governance revolutions in aftermath of BSE crisis.

The acute BSE crisis of the mid-1990s was the main trigger for drastic innovations in food safety policy. At the EU level as well as in France, the UK and Germany, the loss of public confidence in food regulation resulting from the BSE crisis has put the food safety systems under considerable reform pressure. This is one of the outcomes of a large comparative study carried out by seven European research institutes as part of the project SAFE FOODS, an EU-sponsored research project on food safety in 21 countries.

In the study, it says that Sweden, contrary to other countries successfully managed to maintain public trust during the BSE crisis and therefore, made little changes to its regulatory system. Remarkably, the increasing frequency of food safety scandals in Hungary indicates that adaptation to EU regulations is still problematic.

Different ways

While several countries had the BSE crisis in common as the turning point in the history of food safety policy, they followed a different approach in their effort to restore public confidence.  At the EU level, as well as in France and Germany, risk assessment and risk management activities were formally separated, and new food safety agencies with specifically allocated responsibilities were created.

In the UK, where public confidence had been shaken most dramatically, the Food Standards Agency now works on the basis of a more integrated approach to the risk analysis process, but provides for a functional division between the two activities.

All the four systems have resorted to new procedures and mechanisms to improve transparency, openness and participation, for example by public access to information of the risk analysis activities or by strengthening stakeholder involvement. Endorsement of the precautionary principle as a risk management tool is also a common feature, but there are major differences in interpretation when applying the precautionary principle to every-day regulatory decisions.

Interestingly, in the EU-level study the researchers noted that the majority of reforms concentrate on the risk assessment phase and much less relate to the stage of risk management. There are, for instance, clear guiding principles for risk assessment (independence, transparency, excellence), but not for risk management and risk evaluation.

The research results have been recently published in the book ‘Food Safety Regulation in Europe – A Comparative Institutional Analysis’. The results are based on literature research and a series of interviews with senior managers at the EU level and five Member States (UK, France, Germany, Sweden and Hungary). In the study participated: Maastricht University, The Netherlands; King’s College, United Kingdom; Institut Symlog, France; Dialogik gGmbH, Germany; SINE Institut, Germany; Göteborg University, Sweden and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology, Hungary.

EU project SAFE FOODS

SAFE FOODS is a 4-year EU project, coordinated by the RIKILT-Institute of Food Safety in Wageningen, the Netherlands. The project involves natural and social scientists from 37 universities and research institutes from 21 European countries. Its goal is to change the scope of decision-making on food safety from single risks to considering foods as sources of risks, benefits and costs that are associated with their production and consumption. Building further on the work in this book, SAFE FOODS aims to improve transparency and involvement of stakeholders in risk analysis, as well as to develop approaches for dealing with uncertainty.

Note

Book: “Food Safety Regulation in Europe – A Comparative Institutional Analysis”, Editors: Prof. Ellen Vos, Dr Frank Wendler – University of Maastricht, Intersentia Publishing (Series Ius Commune Europaeum).