The Problem with Purity: Market Failures, Foodborne Contamination, and the Search for Accountability in the U.S. Food Safety Regulatory Regime

By Courtney I. P. Thomas.

Published by Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal

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One of the great American misconceptions is that U.S. government agencies have the authority to guarantee food safety and to enforce accountability standards upon food producers, processors, and distributors. However, this is not the case. The U.S. food safety regulatory regime has remained stagnant for more than a century, embedded in the notions of adulteration that framed the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act and the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act and that predate modern understandings of food chemistry, microbiology, and sanitation. As a consequence, the U.S. food safety regulatory regime is statutorily obligated to guarantee food purity and wholesomeness and, in that context, the safety of food additives, but lacks the necessary legislative mandate to regulate physical, chemical, and microbiological food safety. Efforts by regulatory institutions to address food safety challenges beyond the scope of food purity test the boundaries of their statutory mandates, often rendering the regulatory regime inefficient, ineffective, and reactive to food safety threats, crises, or risks. This paper examines the history of U.S. food safety regulation from the perspectives of international political economy, accountability frameworks, and regulatory governance. It includes an analysis of the impact and influence of food producing, processing, and distributing firms upon the policy process, examining when, why, and how large agri-food corporations support or oppose changes to the food safety regulatory regime and accountability framework, and centers upon a history of food safety crises as a catalyst for political change. It concludes with an analysis of the Food Safety Modernization Act, the first transformative food safety legislation to gain traction in the U.S. Congress in more than a century, and its journey through the policy process.

Keywords: Regulatory History, Public Policy Analysis, International Political Economy, Accountability Frameworks

Food Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp.57-68. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 673.485KB).

Dr. Courtney I. P. Thomas

Visiting Assistant Professor, Political Science, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA, USA

Courtney I. P. Thomas received her education at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She earned a BA in Political Science in 2002, a MA in Political Science in 2006, and a Ph.D in Planning, Governance, and Globalization in 2010. Her research emphasizes international political economy, regulatory governance, and public policy. In particular, her work focuses upon food politics, food safety, and food security. Courtney has extensively examined the Codex Alimentarius Commission and its linkages with the World Trade Organization as well as the U.S. food safety regulatory regime. She has studied food safety at the graduate level in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech and combines her knowledge of the policy process and regulatory dynamics with a science-based understanding of food safety, HACCP, and GAPs/GMPs. She currently serves as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech.