A Critical Look at the Concept of Regulatory Intermediaries in Food Safety Regulation
Levi-Faur and Starobin (2014, p 21) broadly conceptualize regulatory intermediaries as ‘regulatory actors with the capacity to affect, control, and monitor relations between rule-makers and rule-takers via their interpretations of standards and their role in the increasingly institutionalized processes of monitoring, verification, testing, auditing, and certification. They include a range of public and private actors serving as ad hoc regulators such as vigilant civilians, consumers, and professionals voluntarily contributing to collective enforcement of societal rules, sounding “fire alarms”, and calling for regulatory action.’
We start our paper by empirically mapping the various regulatory intermediaries in the field of food safety regulation. In doing so, we use the ‘regulatory intermediaries triangle’ to locate the intermediaries as to the type of actor involved (state, business, civil society or collaborative). Next to this, the national – international axis proves important. The field of food safety regulation seems to be crowded with regulatory intermediaries on all levels. Consider the important role of institutional private actors such as third party certification bodies, private food standards organisations, and consulting firms. We will examine what role the intermediaries fulfill in the regulatory arrangement. Intermediaries may be involved in translating rules for rule-takers, assessing compliance with the rules, lobbying for regulatory change, educating rule-takers, and promoting particular regulations. Basically intermediaries pass on information between rule-makers and rule-takers, and close the existing information gaps. Rule-makers often do not know about the practices, motives and problems of rule-takers, whereas many rule-takers are not equipped to translate general standards for application on the ground and to voice their interests to rule-makers. Here, intermediaries may add to the legitimacy of a regulatory regime (or, alternatively, organize resistance against the rules). They may also adjust the rules to fit particular sites of application or to serve particular interests. Many intermediaries are connected not only with rule-makers and rule-takers but also with each other.
The aforementioned private actors are clear examples of intermediaries in the field of food safety. But what about internal compliance officers, public food inspectors, farmers associations or powerful market parties such as export-wholesale businesses or corporate retailers? Are these intermediaries too? They do fulfill –at least partly – the same roles.
The Regulatory Intermediaries project rightly broadens the scope of research and analysis in regulatory governance beyond rule-making. This is a valuable contribution as the regulatory arena is populated not only by regulators and regulatees. However, the concept of regulatory intermediary seems to include almost all actors in a regulatory environment. If that environment is constructed as being the supply chain or the policy cycle, the question becomes: who’s not a regulatory intermediary? Most actors in the food supply chain are at one point rule-taker and intermediary at another point, while some supply chain actors also act as rule-maker. A multinational food manufacturing company is a rule-taker because it has to comply with governmental and private rules, but it is also an intermediary where it transmits governmental rules to its suppliers, and again a rule-maker where it designs its own quality control system and imposes that system on its suppliers.
The same applies for governmental organizations in a policy chain. Governmental organizations may operate as rule-makers, rule-taker and intermediaries vis-à-vis different actors, all at the same point in time. For example, national food inspectorates are rule-makers where they formulate detailed requirements in implementing the European or national legislation, but are rule-takers where they have to comply with European and national regulations and act as intermediaries where they explain the European and national legislation to food businesses (e.g. via hygiene codes and guidelines) and asses compliance with the European legislation at food business operators. This all invites the question of what the distinctive value of the ‘regulatory intermediaries’ lens is to studies in food safety regulation.