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Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Print version ISSN 0042-9686

Bull World Health Organ vol.80 n.2 Genebra Jan. 2002 

Food safety and international competitiveness — the case of beef

John Spriggs & Grant Isaac CABI publishing, Wallingford, England, 2001. ISBN 0-85199- 518-7 price £40, US$ 75

Food safety has become perhaps the most challenging food issue of the developed world. The bovine spongiform encephalo-pathy (BSE) crisis, along with other recent food scares in industrialized countries, has helped to make this clear. These events have also been a lightning conductor for change around the world in the attitudes of government, industry and consumers towards food safety. The exploration of this changing situation by John Spriggs and Grant Isaac has resulted in a readable book. From their vantage points of a school of agriculture in Wagga Wagga, Australia, and a school of commerce in Sakatchewan, Canada, they command a wide view of the field and use it to provide information which is valuable for specialists and generalists alike.

With beef as a case example, the authors study the existing food safety arrangements and procedures in four countries: Australia, Canada, the UK and the USA. They focus in particular on the rules that constrain behaviour, the drivers of change, and the link between food safety and international competition. On the basis of their observations on the four national food safety systems, the authors present a conceptual framework for improvement. They recommend: strengthening the drivers of change; choosing the right public and private decision-making systems (meta-rules); and building up robust, realistic institutional arrangements for food safety. Not surprisingly, they find that international institutional arrangements, such as the Codex Alimentarius within the UN system, and the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary Standards and Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, have had an important influence on how the food safety systems have developed in the countries studied.

A basic question the book tries to answer is: "What roles should government and industry play in providing for an optimal food safety system?" The authors believe that the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) approach is the most revolutionary institutional innovation to ensure food safety in the 20th century. They argue that the best way for a country to make its food safe is to move towards a coregulated system based on the HACCP principles. Coregulation means that auditing is performed by an accredited independent third party company. The authors also think that with the right institutional arrangements in place internationally, competitive firms will be both willing and able to ensure food safety.

Spriggs and Isaac say they see themselves more as film critics than as scientists in this account of what is going on. They accordingly review the various forces that interact in forming a food safety system, show how the relevant institutions work to control the process, and draw their conclusions about the strengths and weaknesses of the system in each of the four countries concerned. They also make suggestions on how food safety systems in general can be improved.

The reader may well not agree with all their descriptions, explanations, opinions, statements, and conclusions. For instance, the social objective they favour is debatable. It is: "maximizing the food industry's international competitiveness, subject to achieving some generally agreed, scientifically based minimum standards on food safety". That sounds good for business but perhaps not so good for health and welfare. Is some minimum enough? And what happens when science and general agreement contradict each other? Many related questions arise. Should the primary objective be limited to food safety only? Even if it is, what level of food safety is satisfactory? Furthermore, one may find that the authors' review of risk analysis does not fully comply with the framework accepted by the Codex Alimentarius.

Nevertheless, the book gives us a good guided tour of what needs to be considered in a food safety system, as exemplified by beef. It also provides the many different parties concerned — from farmers to consumers and everyone in between — with plenty to think about.

Hilde Kruse1




1 Head, Norwegian Zoonosis Centre, National Veterinary Institute, PO Box 8156 Dep., 0033 Oslo, Norway (email

Ref. No. 02-0052