How Private Food Safety Standards Restrict Access to Markets (and the Desirability of Doing So)
In general, private food safety standards might be regarded as beneficial for both producers and consumers. If Walmart, for example, imposes a requirement on its supplier farms to use chemical fertilizers instead of manure, an important safety risk is minimized (although with other perhaps less desirable costs imposed on farmers and their environment), consumers’ food is safer, and Walmart faces less liability for having sold or distributed contaminated food. Yet the Global GAP system of standards is far more extensive on far more criteria than food safety yet with important, costly ramifications on food markets.
Consider seafood. Fish continues to be one of the most-traded food commodities worldwide, with around 45% of the world fish catch now traded internationally. The fishery trade is especially important for developing nations, in some cases accounting for more than half of the total value of traded commodities. Seafood consumption has increased in the United States in recent decades, reaching a high during the past decade: the average American now eats approximately 16.5 pounds of seafood each year, compared with 10 to 12 pounds during the 1980s.
The extensive production and transportation networks involved with the fish and seafood trade open vulnerabilities to contamination and spoilage. While not every country tracks seafood-related illnesses and infections, reports from the Food and Agriculture Organization suggest that seafood borne illnesses may comprise up to 16.1% of all foodborne related illnesses in some countries.
Global GAP has issued detailed standards and codes of conduct for assuring the safety of seafood, or at least minimizing the risks of contamination or decomposition. Global GAP builds its general regulations for aquaculture over its integrated farm assurance requirements applicable to all the producers who participate in its certification system. Global GAP certification is more demanding than many national schemes with respect to documentation for specific practices. For example, Global GAP certification requires that “[f]ish . . . introduced to the farm shall be certified free from known diseases” and that records be kept on “information on sampling protocols, test methods and reagents, frequency and results” of disease surveillance all documents.
Yet there has been little examination into whether the relatively more burdensome documentation provisions of Global GAP compliance correspond to better food safety outcomes. This is important given the cost that participation in Global GAP imposes. Thailand, for example, has adopted standards with respect to a national good agricultural practices program aimed at enhancing the competitiveness of its shrimp industry which generates $2.1 billion in annual revenues and employs nearly 1 million people. Thai standards cover all stages of production, processing and marketing and subjects farms to inspection and documentation. By May 2008, nearly half of Thailand’s 363,946 registered farms – including aquaculture – were certified under its national program. The Thai Department of Fishery (DOF) establishes guidelines for all stages: hatchers to farm rearing to processing and shipment all the way to the consumers. Thai DOF auditors assess all processes of shrimp farming against the code of conduct for Responsible Fishery, with guidelines on aquaculture from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the ISO14001 standard for Environmental Management System (EMS).
Yet in 2008 only 923 of Thai registered farms qualified for Global GAP certification, and that number has subsequently declined to 277. A study conducted by the Fisheries & Environmental Science of Kasetsart University evaluated the impact on Thai farms if Global GAP rather than Codex standards applied. Eighteen shrimp farms were sampled from different farm types (7 small single farms; 6 medium single farms; and 5 small/medium, group farms, covering both inland and coastal farms) in the Central, East and South of Thailand. The sample represented more or less typical shrimp farming practices in the country. The studied farms were audited clause-by-clause against the Global GAP criteria. The sampled farms complied with nearly half of the Global GAP criteria with no significant difference among different farm sizes. In general, the compliance level of the farms with aquaculture standards was highest (47-52 per cent), followed by shrimp specific standards (44-46 per cent), workers’ rights (43-45 per cent) and the more general standards Global GAP applies to all farms (22-27 per cent). Yet for aquaculture, the compliance failures had largely to do with procedures to deal with customer complaints and product recall rather than ex ante food safety practices that are the focus of national law.
Even within Global GAP standards, it is not necessarily clear that they are more demanding or consistent in their approach to food safety principles. Global GAP standards are divided into “major musts”, “minor musts”, and recommendations. Certified farms must pass 100% of all “major musts,” 95% of all “minor musts” while recommendations do not affect certification but may become “minor musts” over time. Under Global GAP standards, monitoring fish for health indicators is a “minor must” while having a system to register all disease occurrences is a “major must” but does not require any documentation as to the existence of the system. Producers must maintain a written “equipment cleaning and disinfection plan” but a food safety system in place at the time of an auditor’s inspection is a recommendation. As Antoine Bernard de Raymond and Laure Bonnaud have observed “there exists not one but several interpretations of Global GAP.”