BSE crisis and food safety regulation: a comparison of the UK and Germany
The BSE crisis represents one of the worst policy disasters experienced by a UK government in recent years. In material terms, it led to the slaughter of 3.3 million cattle and an estimated economic loss of £3.7 billion. In administrative terms, the crisis led to the dissolution of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), an institution that was heavily criticised by the Phillips Inquiry for its lack of openness and transparency. Although far less severe in terms of its economic impact, with estimated losses of between Euro 0.8 and 1.05 billion, the German BSE crisis resulted in extensive political fallout, leading, inter alia, to the resignation of two government ministers. This paper compares the handling of the crisis in the UK and Germany and the regulation put in place in its aftermath. It explores the reasons for the failure of both governments to manage this crisis in a credible, timely and proactive fashion. Examining the institutional contexts in which decisions about scientific evidence on BSE were made, the paper argues that, in both countries, a centralised system, in which government agencies controlled “science for government”, was vulnerable to expert-interest group alliances which undermined the potential for a credible assessment of public health and safety risks. Looking at the policies adopted in the aftermath of these crises, the paper notes that, although being far less affected by BSE, Germany paradoxically adopted far more rigorous measures for the prevention of future incidents, which included the strict administrative separation of the risk assessment and management functions. Our paper concludes that the extent of administrative reforms which are initiated in response to crises is more likely to correspond to that general receptiveness of the political environment to these reforms, than the ‘objective’ impact of the crisis itself.
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