GOVERNMENT AGENCIES. National governments often play a major role in the production, distribution, trade, and safety of food. Nowhere is the government food system as elaborate and extensive as in the United States. Bureaucracy in every type of political system has been built up around food regulations and laws; inspection, quarantine, laboratory analysis and certification; epidemiology and surveillance of food-borne disease; and systems management. Which agency performs which function varies among governments.
In any country, there is a fundamental need to sustain as much production as possible in order to feed the population. Government-controlled price-support systems are often put in place to guarantee a certain amount of commodity production. These systems stabilize income for farmers, who supply essential crops, and they allow for competition in domestic and global marketplaces. A Ministry of Agriculture usually performs farm-aid services, in which plant and animal production are combined, or such tasks may be undertaken by a more comprehensive Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Forests, which also oversees fishing and wood production. The function of such agencies may include introducing new technologies to enhance production, as well as educating consumers about new products, such as those derived from agricultural biotechnology. Agricultural agencies may also dispense governmentsubsidized seed stocks, license plant hybrids, and manage national grain reserves to protect the country against famine. Agency experts or advisory committees made up of outside experts may compile government manuals of good agricultural practices. Regulatory officials in such agencies are responsible for defining regulations that assure food safety and high-quality products for trade. Such officials may also represent national trade interests and work to harmonize international regulations with officials from other countries in arenas like the World Trade Organization or Codex Alimentarius.
It is often said that hunger and food-supply problems in many countries in the developing world are not the result of a lack of food but of a lack of infrastructure for the equitable dissemination of food. Effective governmental management of distribution systems (roads, railroads, etc.) through a Ministry of Transportation can be of vital importance in feeding a population efficiently. A Ministry of Commerce may also assist both in domestic distribution, through oversight of the marketplace, and in international distribution, through a system of import and export regulations, tariffs, permits, and certification, which may also be the tasks of a Ministry of Trade.
A Ministry of Public Health may be involved in issues of food safety and nutrition. This agency is usually responsible for licensing or running analytical laboratories and may be involved in tracking food-borne disease outbreaks. International trade standards enforce low tolerances for agricultural chemicals and pesticides, filth, toxins, and contaminants. Thus, foods that enter into international trade may be of higher quality than those that are relegated to the domestic marketplace, thereby creating a double standard for food production. As a result, domestic consumers in developing nations may receive inferior-quality food, in addition to insufficient amounts of food. A Ministry of the Environment may be a governmental player in the food production arena as well, since pesticides and chemicals used in food production may exert a negative impact on the environment.
Traditionally, this multi-agency situation in governments has set one agency against another, vying for political support and the finances to run programs, especially when resources are extremely limited. A government that encourages interaction among various agencies is often more successful. Due to the heavy emphasis that has been placed on food safety in most nations, there has been a trend toward the establishment of single national food-safety agencies. The trendsetter in this regard was Canada, which is serviced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). The CFIA combined into one agency the authorities of four traditional departments involved in food-safety regulation and quality control of food production and processing; export certification; and import permits and quarantine. The French Food Safety Agency (AFSSA) and the new Belize Animal Health Authority (BAHA) are two other examples of consolidated agencies.
The effective performance of all functions involving the food-supply chain is vital to sustaining leadership in government. Without an adequate or safe food supply or a viable economy resulting from ample agricultural production, a hungry public may challenge or overthrow that leadership. The appointed officials who lead these governmental agencies face intense political pressures. Thus the tenure of such an official may be quite brief, with Ministers of Agriculture staying in office an average of fourteen months in Latin America in 2000. First in Great Britain and then in several other European countries, the leadership and structure of agencies responsible for food safety were completely changed in the wake of "mad cow" disease scandals. Public confidence in the government's ability to protect public health plunged to new depths, and whole parties in power were overthrown. In a world where information flows quite freely, governmental agencies are expected to function transparently and keep the public well informed of issues involving the safety of their food supply.
A relatively new tool for regulatory decision making in regard to food production and processes is risk assessment. To appease a wary public and facilitate operations, some governments are adding new agencies to provide such scientific analysis and make recommendations for risk management and communication. The European Union (EU) is setting up an umbrella food-safety agency, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which will provide risk assessment and scientific advice to the European Commission, its Parliament, and member states, as well as to the public. Japan is also setting up an independent scientific risk-assessment authority to reestablish public confidence in that government.
The extent of a government's food-agency infrastructure depends on the importance of agriculture to a national economy and, of course, the size of that economy. Thus, in the developing world, agencies that exist may be extremely important but may have limited capacity and resources. Food agencies in such countries may rely heavily on private sector partnerships where some functions, particularly those involving trade, may be performed by cooperatives of producers working in their own best interests. An example is the Association of Exporters of Chile (ASOEX), which devised a quality production system for Chilean fruits and financed legal costs associated with allegations of grape dumping in the United States.
See also Codex Alimentarius; Commodity Price Supports; FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization); Food Security; Food Supply and the Global Food Market; International Agencies; National Cuisines, Idea of; Political Economy.
Doering, Ronald L. "Reforming Canada's Food Inspection System: The Case of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA)." Journal of the Association of Food and Drug Officials 62, no. 3 (1998): 15.
European Food Safety Authority website. Available at http://www.europa.eu.int/comm/food.
The World Health Organization's web site is available at www.who.int.
Robin Yeaton Woo
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