After the Outbreak: Organizing Food Safety in the United States and Germany

Photo by Scott Warman on Unsplash


Nearly one in six people get sick from a foodborne illness each year, and multi-state outbreaks are becoming larger and more frequent. However, national public health regimes diverge in their approaches to managing foodborne risks, which has important implications for emergency management, public health, and international trade. My study seeks to explain cross-national differences in food safety governance in the context of two major E. coli outbreaks: the 2006 U.S. E. coli outbreak associated with bagged spinach, and the 2011 German E. coli outbreak associated with fenugreek sprouts. Both outbreaks represented each country’s first large-scale outbreak linked to fresh produce, yet national responses diverged. I draw on data from three sources to explain the policy divergence: (1) semi-structured interviews with food safety experts, government regulators, industry representatives, and consumer advocates; (2) newspaper articles and official reports; and (3) survey data on consumer perceptions of foodborne risks. Contrary to the conventional narrative about Europe’s embrace of the “precautionary principle” giving rise to more stringent risk policies than in the U.S., I find that in the domain of microbial food safety, U.S. institutions outpaced their E.U. counterparts in pursuing preventative solutions. Moreover, the scale of the outbreaks in the study did not predict the response; ten times more people were sickened in the German outbreak than in the U.S. outbreak, yet the German policy response was minimal. I develop the concept of “food risk cultures” to explain this counterintuitive finding, focusing on the institutionalized relations among government agencies, the food industry, medical professionals, and consumers in each nation. I find that the balance of power across these actors, their patterned relations, and shared cultural values help explain why food safety was understood and managed differently in each nation. These findings bridge debates in environmental sociology, political sociology, and organizational studies about the contextual bases of risk governance. More broadly, this study contributes to our understanding of how constructions of social problems interact with organizational processes to produce public policy.

Kelsey D. Meagher
Kelsey D. Meagher
Postdoctoral Researcher, UC Davis