Book Project : The Politics of Food Safety: Detection and Perceptions of Food Safety Problems in China

Advances in science and technology have laid the foundation for unparalleled economic prosperity but such breakthroughs have also precipitated the proliferation of unprecedented societal risks. Though the threat of nuclear war and climate change represent the most globally catastrophic of these risks, arguably no other risk has had as intimate and as direct an effect on the lives of most ordinary people than risks to their food safety.

However, despite concerted political will, governments tasked with securing food safety face many challenges in doing so. Authoritarian governments in particular, often touted for their ability to spur economic development precisely because they ignore societal risks like food safety, face unique challenges in building the necessary regulatory regime to ensure it. Meanwhile, though public furor provides the fuel for regulatory reform, the ability of the public to translate that furor into effective regulation is stymied by existing political structures and their own cognitive biases. I investigate these issues with a special focus on China, where food safety problems have run rampant since the early 2000's.

In so doing, I argue that the inherent challenge in ensuring food safety stems from its extreme opacity. Although people have long known that consuming unsafe food can lead to negative health outcomes, the detection of which items are unfit for consumption is generally neither easy nor self-evident without substantial expertise, resources and time. Meanwhile even if outside institutions, such as the government or the media, step in to fill this gap, the necessity of such intermediation means that the populace's evaluation of food safety is also necessarily filtered by what these institutions choose to reveal on the one hand and public perceptions of these institutions on the other hand.

Building on this premise, I push forward our understanding of the general correlation between greater economic development and increasing risks to food safety by theorizing and testing a relationship between urban biased policies and food safety problems. In so doing, I argue that policies designed to increase food production may lead to the proliferation of food safety problems out of ignorance or indifference (Chapter 2). Meanwhile, I investigate the extent to which the politicization of food safety problems is sensitive to the existing political environment. To that end, I find that the extent to which people express grievances in response to food safety crises in authoritarian regimes is tempered by fears of potentially negative political repercussions (Chapter 3). Given the importance of of ensuring food safety to political legitimacy, authoritarian leaders have every incentive to address the problem. However, enforcing food safety regulation is the responsibility of local government officials, not those in the central government. While I find that local officials are responsive to both bottom-up grievances and top-down monitoring, competing economic incentives seem to exercise far more sway over their governance decisions (Chapter 4). Finally food safety regulatory tools that manage to sidestep this central-local government conflict may still face challenges to ensuring food safety. That is, I find evidence to suggest that public trust in regulatory institutions forms an important component of regulatory buy-in and thus regulatory success (Chapter 5).

I test my hypotheses using a range of evidence and methodological strategies. I assess the argument that urban biased policies can increase risks to food safety using a panel dataset of agricultural inputs and food safety metrics. Meanwhile, I test whether the political environment affects how grievances over food safety are expressed using originally collected data of Weibo posts and newspaper articles about food safety at the Chinese sub-provincial level. I also use this dataset to investigate the types of incentives the local government respond to with regards to food safety regulatory enforcement. Finally, I evaluate the extent to which trust in regulatory institutions affects regulatory buy-in using original Chinese survey data.

This book project is builds on and is being developed out of my PhD dissertation.

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