Food Safety Regulation under National and International Law: Integrating Consumer Regulators in Proliferating Standardisation Projects
[The following is a longer and un-footnoted draft of a fourth Policy Digest prepared for a Sydney Southeast Asia Centre joint research project and an ASEAN Secretariat project on harmonising consumer protection law.]
Public regulation of food safety is typically an early and major priority for law reformers at the national level, given potentially high risks and degrees of harm from unsafe foods. For products that present lower risks, for which it is more difficult to mobilize political resources to regulate, product liability regimes can also incentivise manufacturers to consider food safety – especially if potential harm is extensive, liability is strict, and court systems work effectively. Further incentives can come from reputational effects, in the context of growing (social) media coverage of food safety concerns. Nonetheless, as outlined in Part 2 below, serious food safety failures continue to occur in both developing and developed countries.
General food laws have been enacted in ASEAN Member States (AMSs). As shown in a recent comparison of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, they generally impose criminal and/or administrative sanctions for food adulteration, foods injurious to health, food unfit for human consumption, insanitary facilities, and false labeling or deceptive advertising. (Indonesia’s Food Act 1996 further provides specific civil remedies for consumers harmed by unsafe food.) Yet enforcement is problematic: “Food quality and safety standards are usually strictly followed for exportable food commodities, but not always enforced for food destined for the domestic market”.
In addition, such food laws tend to fall under the jurisdiction of ministries of agriculture and/or health. To minimize conflicts of interest, namely agriculture ministries favouring suppliers rather than consumers, there is a tendency to establish independent food agencies, as in the United States (US, although the agriculture department still regulates some products) or Myanmar (within the Health Ministry). This is especially true for risk assessment functions, as in the European Union (EU) since 2002, and Japan since 2003 (for risk management if harm eventuates, Japan’s agriculture ministry still regulates farm safety while the health ministry deals with the subsequent supply chain).
However, other government departments are also increasingly involved in food safety regulation. On the one hand, ministries of commerce or trade get involved because international treaties now require science-based, proportionate regulation of import safety, preferably based on internationally agreed standards, as outlined in Part 3 below. On the other hand, there is existing and potential scope for consumer affairs regulators to become (more) involved in food safety regulation, even though they may constitute smaller and more recently created public authorities, because:
• they often have or share responsibility for enforcing food standards set by other departments (as seen in the Consumer Protection Laws enacted in Vietnam in 2010 and Myanmar in 2013);
• consumer regulators may also be given a coordinating role, or “back-up” powers to regulate if a harmful food product falls outside the jurisdiction of other agencies (eg konnyaku jelly snacks in Japan until the Consumer Affairs Agency was established in 2009);
• consumer regulators may have powers to bring representative actions (as in Thailand) or order compensation (as in Myanmar) on behalf of consumers harmed by non-compliant foods.
Consumer regulators also develop helpful expertise in consumer behaviour and risk communication more generally, which is valuable for law-making related also to food nutrition (i.e. “healthy eating”) – a broader contemporary policy concern than food safety (i.e. avoiding food-borne illnesses). As explained by the Consumers International regional representative at the inaugural ASEAN Consumer Protection Conference, held in Vietnam over 8-9 November 2014, promoting healthy diets is a priority because adverse health effects associated with obesity are now spreading to Southeast Asia. In addition, consumer regulators can assist other government authorities in developing effective schemes for oversight of “food safety auditing” by private inspectors, already widely used in global food supply chains and likely to be further facilitated through international agreements on trade in services, yet potentially creating conflicts of interests for the auditors which may impact adversely on consumers.
Accordingly, there is a need to expand capacity in food-related health issues among consumer regulators in AMSs. They need enhanced opportunities to engage with other national regulators (with shared or primary responsibility for food safety regulation) as well as the growing numbers of international, inter-governmental or public-private partnership organisations involved in generating shared food safety standards in the region. This is especially important given that the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) project, promoting free trade in goods and services by 2015, includes harmonisation of agri-food standards as a priority action item (as elaborated in Part 3).