Internationalization, Democracy, and Food Safety Measures: The (Il)Legitimacy of Consumer Preferences?

By Skogstad, Grace | Global Governance, July-September 2001 | Go to article overview

Internationalization, Democracy, and Food Safety Measures: The (Il)Legitimacy of Consumer Preferences?


Skogstad, Grace, Global Governance


Reconciling internationalization with democracy is a matter of considerable interest and importance. As a mode of governance, democracy presumes the relevance of the territorial state; the geographic scope of those who exercise political authority coincides with the population that they represent and are accountable to and that have a voice in their decisions. This presumption is increasingly at odds with internationalization and the emergence of sites of power that lie outside the community over which authority is exercised. [1] Although scholars disagree about the degree to which it has occurred, few would dispute that policymaking authority has "leeched" away from nation-states to supranational authorities and/or mobile transnational economic actors. [2] Both developments jeopardize democracy, but the transmission of policymaking authority to supranational bodies is often regarded as the lesser threat, since supranational institutions are created by states and operate with their consent. Nonetheless, even when states consent to it, the extension of the domain of supranational bodies into policy matters traditionally considered as domestic "within-the-border" issues raises concerns of democratic accountability and popular sovereignty. Supranational bodies generally lack the practices of self-governance that are well embedded in liberal democracies.

In this article I examine recent developments that have led to an increase in the internationalization of food safety regulation and weigh their consequences for governments' capacities to devise food safety policies in accordance with democratic norms. With the adoption of the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures [3] (SPS Agreement) in 1995, under the World Trade Organization (WTO), states have delegated to supranational bodies significant authority to set and enforce Food safety rules and standards and have agreed to be bound by the decisions of bodies that adjudicate disputes that arise over these rules. Within these supranational bodies, and by virtue of the rules adopted in the SPS Agreement, the authority of experts-scientists--is elevated and the preferences of consumers undermined. The reliance on technical experts is consistent with domestic food safety regulatory practices, where governments have delegated the regulatory task to arms-length agencies, whose scientists exercise standard-s etting and standard-enforcement powers. However, in keeping with liberal democratic norms, domestic regulatory agencies exercise their authority within an accountability framework that leaves political authorities ultimately responsible for the safety of their citizens' food supply. In addition, and despite the necessity of technical expertise for effective food safety regulation, recognition of the social and economic dimensions that attend food safety regulation has often led governments to establish mechanisms for a two-way flow of information between food safety regulatory bodies and the public. In this way, popular sovereignty is provided for. [4]

In contrast to the domestic arena, internationalization of food safety regulation does not provide a similar degree of either democratic accountability or popular sovereignty. There are few opportunities for popular participation in supranational bodies, where resources of technical expertise of a scientific, legal, or economic nature are the influential tools of the trade. Efforts to make their decisionmaking more transparent and open to nongovernmental observers mitigate in some measure the lack of popular sovereignty but are not without limitations. [5] Democratic accountability is also undermined by the strengthened rule-making authority of officials in international institutions. Absent from the latter are the procedural mechanisms that exist at the domestic level and through which politicians answer for their decisions and those taken by their officials, explaining how and why citizens' wishes have or have not been met. …

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