Bans, Tests and Alchemy: Food Safety Regulation and the Uganda Fish Export Industry

Publication Type: 
Page Numbers: 
Published On: 

Contemporary regulation of food safety incorporates principles of quality management and systemic performance objectives that used to characterize private standards. Conversely, private standards are covering ground that used to be the realm of regulation. The nature of the two is becoming increasingly indistinguishable. The case study of the Ugandan fish export industry highlights how management methods borrowed from private standards can be applied to public regulation to achieve seemingly conflicting objectives. In the late 1990s, the EU imposed repeated bans on fish imported from Uganda on the basis of food safety concerns. However, the EU did not provide scientific proof that the fish were actually “unsafe.” Rather, the poor performance of Uganda’s regulatory and monitoring system was used as justification. Only by fixing “the system” (of regulations and inspections) and performing the ritual of laboratory testing for all consignments for export to the EU did the Ugandan industry regain its status as a “safe” source of fish. Yet, gaps and inconsistencies abound in the current Ugandan fish safety management system. Some operations are by necessity carried out as “rituals of verification.” Given the importance of microbiological tests and laboratories in the compliance system, “alchemic rituals” provide an appropriate metaphor. These rituals are part and parcel of a model that reassures the EU fish-eating public that all is under control in Uganda from boat to point of export. As a consequence, actual non-compliance from boat to landing site allows the fishery to survive as an artisanal operation.