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Survey on public-private collaboration in food governance

Tetty Havinga, December 2018

Modern food governance is increasingly hybrid, involving not only government, but also industry and – to a lesser extent- civil society actors. In recent years we have observed initiatives to align public and private forms of food safety governance and new emerging relationships between public enforcement authorities and private food safety assurance schemes. Public food authorities in countries such as Canada, China, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States are exploring the possibilities of coordination and collaboration with private food governance arrangements. They appear to be primarily interested in enrolling private food safety assurance schemes in their risk-based monitoring and enforcement policies to more effectively and efficiently use their inspection resources and to strengthen food safety in the food industry. At the same time, in particular the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI) pursues a policy to engage with international and national governments. Specifically, GFSI seeks to gain US and EU recognition of GFSI benchmarked schemes as an accepted tool to help them prioritize their food safety compliance resources and factory inspection. These developments indicate an increasing coordination and collaboration between public and private actors engaged in the governance of food safety.

My research is interested in these developments. More particularly, it is concerned with the types of coordination and collaboration that are employed and with the incentives and obstacles involved in aligning public and private food governance. In the context of this research, I conducted a web based survey about what forms of coordination and collaboration are already existing in different countries.

Download the full report (pdf, 1,8 MB).

Summary of the survey results

The survey

A web based global survey of national governmental authorities responsible for food safety controls was carried out to get an overview of their collaboration with private assurance schemes. Summer 2017, the survey was distributed among officers working at national food authorities:

1) participants of the G2G meetings of governmental food authorities discussing the cooperation with private food assurance systems,

2) members of the Heads of European Food Safety Agencies, and

3) attendants at the Joint FAO/WHO Food Standards Programme Codex Alimentarius Commission Codex meeting 17-22 July 2017 where regulatory approaches to third party certification in food safety were discussed.

The survey consists of a combination of questions with pre-fixed answers and open-ended questions. The information from the questionnaire has been supplemented with information from the website of the organizations, other available documents and personnel communications via e-mail or face-to-face.

The response

The survey revealed information from 41 countries (52 respondents). Not surprisingly, more than half are European countries. Non-European and non-OECD countries are underrepresented. Also three international organisations involved in technical capacity building and assisting governments in modernizing food safety regulation, responded.

Most respondents are senior officers working at the national Ministry of Health, the national Ministry of Agriculture or the national food safety agency. The majority of the respondents have a chemical, technical or veterinary background and have been working for more than 10 years in the field of food safety. Six out of ten respondents participated in an international meeting discussing the cooperation of public agencies with third party assurance schemes.

Use of private food safety assurance schemes

According to the respondents, food authorities in 13 countries take private food safety assurance schemes into account in their inspection policy, 5 countries consider to  do so in the future, 27 do not. The most important reasons to (consider to) take private assurance schemes into account are that it contributes to compliance with regulations, that it implies efficient and effective use of public budget, and that unnecessary duplication of controls is avoided. Several respondents argue that public authorities do not have the capacity to perform frequent controls of all businesses that produce and trade food. Additional private controls can fill this gap. Public controls will then be able to focus the limited resources on areas with higher risk. It is stressed that private controls do not make governmental oversight redundant.

Arguments pro and con

Most respondents see advantages of cooperation with private certification systems. The main advantages are twofold.

  • Private audits are a welcome addition to the inspection capacity of public food agencies. They allow public authorities to focus their limited resources on the highest risks.
  • Cooperation with private assurance systems is expected to result in an overall improvement of food hygiene and it assists food businesses in complying with the law. So it contributes to the ultimate goal of public food safety regulation.

Although almost all respondents see advantages, they also see disadvantages or risks. Many respondents fear that integration of private systems may put consumer confidence in governmental safeguarding of food safety at risk. Respondents feel that it is difficult to explain to consumers and even to their government, why cooperation with private systems is beneficial. Government will be held accountable. Closely connected to this is the risk of regulatory capture.

Other risks are related to the performance of private systems: confidentiality of audit reports, focus on their own economic interests and unreliability of private systems. Some respondents mention differences between official controls and private systems in their purpose, focus and approach.

Finally, according to several respondents cooperation with private systems is conflicting with legal obligations.

Forms of collaboration

Countries that cooperate with private control systems differ in the type of organization they chose as primary collaboration partners. A (national) food authority can collaborate with food safety scheme owners, with certification bodies and auditors, and with food businesses. There are three forms of cooperation.

  1. Basic: it is taken into account that food businesses participate in private assurance schemes. Inspectors take into account all kinds of data including the results of private audits. This may result in a reduced inspection frequency or scope. This form of cooperation does not necessarily imply a collaborative relationship with private scheme owners or certification bodies. Examples include Finland and Denmark.
  2. The competent authority assesses certification bodies or auditors to perform specific audits. Examples include Belgium and New Zealand. Food business operators can choose between a recognized private auditor and a public auditor. The auditor validates the food safety management system or verifies compliance with the (governmental) rules.
  3. The third option is to collaborate on the level of the food certification scheme. The public authority recognizes private assurance schemes after assessing its scope and reliability. Examples of this approach include Canada, Netherlands, UK, France, and Egypt.

Assessment of private assurance schemes

Six countries are involved in assessing the scope and reliability of private assurance schemes. In five other countries the assessment of private assurance schemes is still in development The assessment of a system is generally organized in the following successive steps:

  1. Comparison of the scope and substantial norms of the scheme with the public standards and checks on formal requirements (such as accreditation under the international accreditation framework and adequacy of the oversight system)
  2. The competent authority tests the performance of the private system (records, witness audits, comparing audit reports and so on)
  3. Negotiating and agreeing on terms of cooperation: sharing of information, tasks and duties of the parties, terms for ending and so on. Signing of a Memorandum of Understanding or contract.

Private assurance schemes that are taken into account

In what way do the organizations in their inspections consider the participation of a food operator in a (recognized) private assurance scheme? Often it will result in a reduced inspection frequency. Also the use of private audit data for public inspection and an adapted scope of inspection are ways to take a private assurance scheme into account in inspection policy.

Respondents were asked which private assurance system they take into account. Food safety schemes recognized by GFSI, and assurance schemes from industry associations and for good agricultural practice were most mentioned. The private schemes that are taken into account cover a wide variety of industries including dairy, fresh red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, fresh vegetables and fruits, dry groceries, cereals, ready to eat food, and feed.

Assessment and Monitoring of Certification Bodies

Authorities in ten countries are involved in assessing or controlling certification bodies. In four countries this is in development. In most countries this assessment is limited to the certification of organic farming. Other countries explicitly do not access certification bodies, either because this is regarded the responsibility of accreditation bodies or because assessing all certification bodies would be too burdensome.

In countries such as Belgium, New Zealand and the United States, certification bodies/auditors can apply for recognition to perform specific functions. Requirements for recognition often include the qualifications of the auditors, accreditation, impartiality and independence, reporting of audit results and (major) non-conformities. Recognized certification bodies or auditors are qualified to conduct certain food safety audits verifying compliance with governmental safety regulations.

Exchange of information

The confidentiality of audit reports and of the relation between private certification bodies and their clients are often mentioned as obstacles to the collaboration of public food authorities with private assurance schemes. For that reason we asked whether private assurance schemes and public food authorities share information with each other. Respondents from six countries indicated that private assurance schemes shared information with their organization, in seven countries this is in development. Organizations in five countries share some information with private assurance schemes, in five other countries this is still in development. One of the obstacles to sharing information is that information about audits and inspections is confidential.

Opinions about Private Assurance Schemes

In the questionnaire respondents were asked whether they agree or disagree with 13 items intended to measure the opinion of the respondent on private assurance schemes. Most respondents showed a neutral or positive attitude towards private assurance schemes. One third of the respondents had a positive opinion. Surprisingly, none of the respondents showed a negative attitude. Most respondents agreed that accredited third part certification against a food safety standard contributes to an improved level of food safety. Respondents from organizations that do take private assurance schemes into account have a slightly more positive attitude towards private assurance schemes. However, the difference is only small.

Asked about the ideal situation regarding the involvement of private assurance schemes in public food safety control, many respondents stress that private assurance should be complimentary to official controls, that responsibilities of the parties should be clear, that a legal base is needed, that private schemes should align with legislation, and a certificate should include conformity to food safety legislation (or all food legislation). It is also mentioned that participation in a private assurance scheme should not be mandatory, and that sharing information is important.

Acquaintance with GFSI and GFSI Recognized Schemes

Almost all respondents have heard of the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI). This is of course not surprising, as many respondents were invited to participate in the survey because they have attended a G2G meeting connected to a global conference of GFSI. The awareness of food safety certification programs varies from fairly familiar (BRC, GlobalGap, FSSC22000, IFS) to virtually unknown (RiskPlaza).

Challenges and points for discussion

Finally, what are the consequences of incorporating private controls in governmental monitoring and enforcement policy? The integration of private certification in official controls could be a win-win situation for both parties as it adds up the capacities of both systems. Both public food agencies and private food programs could very well use the resources available to the other party. However, there are some potential risks. From a public interest perspective, the risks can be roughly divided into four categories: conflicts of interest, the capacity of private actors to perform adequate controls, the willingness of private actors to adequate control, and regulatory capture. Arguably, the role of public authorities will shift from direct inspections towards system controls and meta regulation. This may have an impact on the accountability and legitimacy of governmental food authorities.