Consumer and industry involvement
The absence of organization among consumers constrains their ability to protect their own interests in food control. While there has been quite rapid growth of consumer groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in developing countries, the overall impression is that of a fragmented effort. Some groups analyse consumer products and inform and guide their members, while others promote enactment and enforcement of consumer legislation including that relating to food. There are groups that conduct market surveys and advise their members on the best buys; many handle complaints. A few are also engaged in training activities.
Food control authorities have difficulty deciding which organization should be given representation. Sometimes the interests of one group regarding a particular class of food or a food-related problem have come into conflict with the interests of another. The net result is that both lose their impact. As group participation is a voluntary activity, the personalities, drive and integrity of a group's leaders make a tremendous difference in the group's effectiveness.
Of course there are still developing countries where there is no consumer movement and where only a few individuals from educational institutes show an active interest in consumer problems. Most of the time they are quite passive. At the international level the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU) has done considerable work to create greater awareness for strengthening national consumer movements.
In comparison to consumers, the industry and trade organizations have more resources and are in a better position to participate in food control decisions. However, industry may be unacquainted with the workings of the regulatory agency and may have doubts that its cooperation is needed.
Scientific knowledge and evidence
A serious constraint to consumer participation in decision-making is consumers' lack of scientific knowledge and information about food quality and safety criteria. Current food laws are unclear about what "safe" means, and there is public confusion and ambiguity about how the concept of safety applies in a given case. Based on risk assessment, a food control authority's task is to reduce risk to the fullest extent possible but not to engage in visionary or impractical efforts to eliminate it. In scientific terms there is no such thing as "absolute safety" or "zero risk". Yet this concept may be difficult to comprehend. It is understandable that a consumer organization would use the zero-risk approach to bargain for risk reduction within practical limits. Beyond that, this approach can only harm the food system with resultant damage to the interests of consumers, industry and the national economy.
Much can be done to educate consumers about the field of food safety evaluation. This calls for information from food science and technology, toxicology and other related subjects including the applicable regulatory mechanisms. It is assumed that the consumer organizations will have the capacity to absorb such information for the common good.
While industry is well equipped with laboratories, qualified scientific personnel, etc., consumer organizations may lack scientific evidence and data of their own to support their point of view. Consumer organizations in developing countries usually rely upon information from industrialized countries, although this may not be relevant to their situation. The consumer organizations could strengthen their scientific expertise through association with institutes specializing in food science, home science, agriculture, public health and nutrition. However, these institutes do not always find it profitable to get involved in consumer affairs.
Industry and trade associations should establish technical committees and expert groups that can appreciate the problems of food safety and consumer protection, prepare scientific evidence and present their case to the food control authorities. Many associations lack technical experts who can give advice about how to conform with national regulations regarding production, marketing and distribution of food.
Legislation and consumers' rights
In addition to food laws, there has been national legislation which protects consumers on such matters as health, environment and trade. Legislation on consumer protection per se has been approved in many countries recently. Unfortunately, consumers are not aware of their rights and this prevents them from deriving full advantage from these measures. The consumer is not at fault for this; the plethora of legislation may produce confusion. At times the gains from one type of legislation may be significantly diluted under another.
When several agencies are involved in food control and there is no coordination or clear division of responsibility, both the consumer and the industry suffer. Lack of uniformity of regulations and duplication of inspections confuse industry and increase its costs as well as those of government, and ultimately consumers pay for this.
Lack of understanding
Consumer movements have traditionally been concerned with the question of which product or technology is best rather than the question of why it is so. They seldom look into the compulsions and motives of those who sell or market foods. This creates a gulf between the interests of the consumers and those of trade and industry. If consumers were to look beyond the product and appreciate the complexities of the food system in their country, they would also realize the system has inadequacies with which the industry must cope. Both consumers and industry would benefit from more dialogue. Allowing the processing and marketing of food to improve over time without undue economic disruption or health risk to the consumer would be helpful.
In many countries, trust and cooperation between industry and the regulatory authority are lacking and any contact between the two is viewed with suspicion. While understandable, this distrust does not protect the interests of the consumer or those of the national economy. With improved cooperation the majority of businesses will comply with food regulations, as it is in their own interest to do so.
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