Ankush at large

Come on governments: hand food safety over to the private sector

By Ankush Chibber

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety Asia Government Southeast asia

Come on governments: hand food safety over to the private sector
Watching Asia from a Western prism gives you the advantage of seeing the bigger picture. But on the flip-side, you end up benchmarking what you see against what has happened in the West. 

For example, Asia’s roaring economic growth is said to be the product of many countries opening up to the world and adopting a more flexible, market-friendly policy environment that fosters entrepreneurship. In fact, it’s a very Western explanation. 

But if you were to meet a successful Asian entrepreneur, I’d bet he will tell you his success came despite the government, and not because of it. And that is true across all of Asia, where governments mostly inherited suppressing systems used by their former colonial overlords to keep the natives in control. The famed Indian Administrative Service is a fine example, as is the civil administration in large parts of South and Southeast Asia. 

Food Safety is one of those things that suffers from this bureaucracy. Take one major instance of a food safety scandal in India or China and I will show you at least one committee still breathing because of it. And two licences that did not exist before the event. It was the colonial way. Don’t understand anything? Toss in a licence.

Tackling an issue in Asia is mostly about throwing a book at it. Anything new or alien that the authorities do not understand or mostly don’t care to understand, you can be damn well sure that there will soon be a licence or permission for it. 

Licences, permissions and labels are not inherently a bad concept. It is just that with large populations and incapable governments that are hamstrung and inefficient, Asia countries do not have an environment where people can trust the government (even though there are notable exceptions like Singapore and Japan).

There is a reason why Kiwi milk is still king in China, even though the industry and government have made significant strides in tackling the issue. And why a FSSAI-approved food does not mean much to the local Indian. They don’t care.

What they do trust—or not—is the food maker. Brands and their reputation mean everything to Asians. If it’s a multinational brand with a degree pedigree, be assured that it does not need much to market its food safety credibility. On the other hand, an upstart can find it way tougher.

Lets be honest, the governments of India and China at the very least, and some others across South and Southeast Asia, have failed in ensuring food safety to the point that no native really thinks that they can do much to fix the systems.

Here is an idea. Excuse yourself, authorities, and outsource your systems. Give it to the private sector. Move en masse towards third-party certification, preferably with established globally known names to do the monitoring. Give these private companies the power and flexibility to fix the processes that have failed. If need be, let them even remove these processes. Hold them accountable but stay relevant only in punishing food safety infractions. That is what you do best now, anyways.

It can work, just as it has worked in other sectors. Just ask any Indian who would likely die of old age before they could get a passport—and this was only a few years ago. Today, Tata Consultancy Services ensures that you get your new passport in a week. Ask the older Thais whose tales of power woes were legendary. A bend towards privatisation has meant uninterrupted and corruption free power for today’s Thailand. The examples are countless.

Have your say: Do you agree with Ankush? Let us know in the comments below.

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Absolute good sense

Posted by David Edwards,

What an interesting challenge to Orthodox thinking. Of course some state and inter government regulation is needed but in fact the only real and viable solution to an efficient control mechanism is to open it up to the private sector. In the uk and elsewhere in Europe governments short of cash are strongly backing concepts like earned recognition and public private co operation. The food supply is now global and complex - some would say too complex - and government inspectors have no chance whatsoever of controlling this ... In the final analysis it's down to industry with reputation management as the driver .... Regulated transparency might be a way to go with consumers having a right to see and know

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Yeah ... right!

Posted by John,

Commercial imperatives will reign supreme ... goodbye to any sense of propriety, the dollar/yen/rupiah/etc will reign supreme, and there will be zero recourse to rectify errors.
Government instrumentalities, while slow to react, at least have a legislative backing for decisions.

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absolute nonsense

Posted by babu,

just imagine the food safety wing in india being handed over to a firm like coke or pepsi or one of their invisible hand

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