Posted by: mel | March 30, 2009

Food Safety and Globalization: An Indonesian Concern

Gautama Adi Kusuma ,  Blacksburg, VA   |  Mon, 03/30/2009 12:57 PM  |  Opinion

YLKI (Indonesian Consumer Foundation Institute) recently released a list of food items suspected of containing melamine.

The warning from a legitimate organization like YLKI has made some uneasy over the issue of food safety in Indonesia, although the government tried to downplay the finding, while the related food producers flatly denied any wrongdoing.

At the same time, the warning reminds us of the milk melamine scandal that originated from China’s milk industry. As we go down the list, it is clear that the foods the YLKI warn contain melamine are imported. It is scary to see how globalization affects food safety.

The foods on the list are mostly imported, some from China and some from other countries, however, it is not clear as to where other countries sourced their raw materials. Thus, the foods on the list are not necessarily imported to Indonesia containing products from just one country, but probably products from several countries.

Millions of consumers across the globe are worried about the alleged involvement of Chinese food in the problematic list, because Chinese industrial capacity is so enormous that its products can be found on the shelves of stores around the globe.

Food safety history in the United States shows that food safety is always a concern in an industrializing economy. Various food and medicinal products in the United States had safety issues from the beginning, spurring the birth of various governmental agencies to regulate risk exposure from food safety issues.

However, the world was limited to smaller, and of course, less global, markets. Since then, food safety has evolved to a different maturity level, both from the state regulatory capacity and the market itself.

Therefore, when today’s global economy reaches its full potential; the state regulatory capacity and the market need to have reached a mature level.

The case is different in China, or in that case, in many other countries, including Indonesia. In this instance, more particularly, in the Chinese food industry. Its development was primarily caused by and intended for international markets.

Chinese industry, including its food industry, unlike other nations, produces and exports many manufactured products instead of mere raw materials, which in the end are more complex to trace and regulate. As global demand grows and its economy grows, more Chinese companies spring up, filling the industrial landscape, which was previously primarily occupied by multinational companies.

Tracing the origin of a contaminated food product is one of the keys to regulating its safety. With more sources of raw materials from different countries, it is getting harder to trace and regulate food safety. Other ingredients for product safety include an open, democratic society and responsive regulators, both of which China still lacks.

Therefore, how do global consumers, in this case Indonesia especially, minimize the risk of exposure to unsafe food products? One key way is, of course, by strengthening regulatory capacity and resources. Food regulatory capacity must not be hamstrung by political or private sector interference, gaining more legitimacy in the process.

In addition, food safety regulatory responsibility should not only rest with one agency; instead, food regulation has to include the private sector and the civil society to ensure food safety.

One agency would not have the capacity and legitimacy to regulate all food products in a country, which leads to the second key to product safety regulation, which is an open democratic society through the accessibility of free press.

The melamine contamination could have been more contained if information had flowed more freely in China. Thus, absolute state co-optation of the media should be eliminated if one wants to allow the public, and thus the consumers, a free flow of information, in this case, for information on unsafe food products.

While economic information asymmetry cannot be completely eliminated, consumers have the right to know where their food comes from. Indonesia needs to institute and enforce tougher standards on where consumers get their food.

The consumers, then, would have the option of purchasing, or not, the products if they knew where the food originated and how to perceive the risks associated with the origin of the food. This regulation could be even more straightforward, as the government or the civil society could advise consumers not to purchase any products without food origin details, in the case of the private sector refusing to apply this regulation.

Food safety is a primary concern in today’s world, especially when the world depends on one another to fulfill its food needs. And that is precisely the beauty of globalization; the ability to ensure the world has enough food and to avoid more people dying from hunger.

The writer is a Ph.D candidate at the Center for Public Administration and Policy, and a graduate system analyst at the Office of Capital Asset and Financial Management, Virginia Tech.

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