The Globalization and Re‐localization of Material Flows: Four Phases of Food Regulation

AuthorTerry Marsden,Robert Lee
Publication Date01 Mar 2009
ISSN: 0263-323X, pp. 129±44
The Globalization and Re-localization of Material Flows:
Four Phases of Food Regulation
Robert Lee* and Terry Marsden*
Over three phases of regulation, the paper traces a narrow range of
regulatory interest in food, focusing largely on food safety and the
handling of periodic food crises. We suggest that these crises were
early indications of the problems in sustaining increasingly unsustain-
able modes of food production through global supply chains and that
United Kingdom/EU regulation acted in part as a palliative, cloaking
the wider systemic disorders. We go on to suggest that, as resource
pressures become increasingly apparent in world food systems, a
further fourth phase of food regulation will need to pay much greater
attention to the resilience, sustainability, and security of food supply.
Modern food supply systems are marked by their high degree of liberal-
ization. For over twenty years, from the mid-1980s onwards, food prices in
the United Kingdom fell at the same time as the food retail sector rejoiced in
the ability of the globalized food supply systems to deliver a plentiful supply
of increasingly technologically novel foods.
Yet this apparently successful
pattern has been undermined by two growing doubts. The first is that the
capacity of these systems carried a price of not infrequent disruption in the
form of food crises, almost as though, in Beck's terms, nature rebelled
ß2009 The Author. Journal Compilation ß2009 Cardiff University Law School. Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd,
9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
*ESRC Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability
and Society (BRASS), Cardiff University, 55 Park Place, Cardiff CF10 3AT,
1M.C. Appleby, N. Cutler, J. Gazzard, P. Goddard, J. A. Milne, C. Morgan, and A.
Redfern, `What Price Cheap Food' (2003) 16 J. of Agricultural and Environmental
Ethics 395.
against the strains of the technocratic pressures.
The second is that, partly as
a result, the systems were subject to increasing contestation as doubts about
their sustainability persisted. Indeed, through much of these twenty years, the
corporately organized system of food production and consumption has been
locked in a battle to maintain its legitimacy in the face of both crises and
Unsurprisingly, across this period, regulation has proved equally dynamic,
shifting from public to private sector as earlier state regulation is displaced
by a highly complex model of food governance significantly dependent on
the management and policing of private supply chains.
In addition, the
focus of regulation moved from its initial, primary concern with food
hygiene and local public health to an emphasis on the containment of food
risk, largely corporate-led and delivered within the private contracting of the
supply chain. In the next iteration of development, the public sphere re-
engages with this private activity, though not at nation-state level, as food
regulatory systems become more international and centralized, mapping onto
the global activity of food supply. Moreover, these systems are not truly
public, because they remain highly dependent on private interest regulation
of the sourcing and provenance of food. These three identifiable stages of
development are outlined below, but to these we would now add a fourth,
emergent and prospective stage of regulatory change involving a shift from
concerns about food safety and quality to concerns about food security.
The second and third stages developed in response to food crises such as
the onset of BSE in British cattle combined with its transfer into CJD in the
human population, a possibility grudgingly accepted at a somewhat late
stage for purposes of risk management. Ironically, just as regulation beds in,
and, through the third stage, is institutionalized, the second area of doubt
concerning the food system supply model, as to its sustainability rather than
its safety, begins to rear its head. This happens as the system finds itself
unable to continue on the path of ever-falling food prices and finally hits real
resource constraints. This paper wishes to review the first three defined
phases of food regulation, exploring, with some hindsight, their limited
scope and purpose before asking how those models may need to adapt to
respond to the immediate new concerns. This is less than easy to predict, not
least because the dominant model of food supply has proved remarkably
resilient to shocks and disorder, but it is just possible that the latest round of
pressures are different in nature to the food crises of the earlier era.
2See U. Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (1992) in which Beck argues
that while seeking to increase power over nature, paradoxically humankind is exposed
to much greater risk, and see J. Gray, `Nature Bites Back' in The Politics of Risk
Society,ed. J. Franklin (1997).
3See T. Marsden, A. Flynn, and M. Harrison, Consuming Interests: The Social
Provision of Foods (2000).
4A.Flynn et al., The New Regulation of Food: Beyond the Food Crisis,towhich the
authors have contributed and which is to be published by Routledge in 2009.
ß2009 The Author. Journal Compilation ß2009 Cardiff University Law School

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