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

Stefano Ponte*

*Corresponding author for this work

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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.
Original languageEnglish
JournalAgriculture and Human Values
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)179-193
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Agrifood systems
  • European Union
  • Fish export
  • Food safety
  • Rituals of verification
  • Standards
  • Uganda
  • Value chains

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