Why do food safety problems in China continue to emerge at an alarming rate? Central and local government officials are highly incentivized to address food safety, but officials have struggled to develop multilevel governance solutions to address the crisis. Contrary to studies that suggest that poor governance outcomes in China are often due to bureaucratic fragmentation, this dissertation highlights the policy challenges that emerge as a result of a contentious process of integrating a fragmented system of governance. For policy issues that are trans-regional and govern a common market, such as food safety, actors understand policy coordination is essential because regulatory failures in one locality can quickly spread to others. However, despite the felt need for an integrated governance approach, regulators, producers, and civic organizations fiercely contest the means to ensure food safety, leading to regulatory incoherence.
The dissertation asserts that the inability of actors to develop a system of integrated food safety governance is directly related to a scale problem. First, actors must overcome a structural scale problem in which millions of actors must coordinate regulatory activity in a multilevel, multi-scale context. In addition to spatial (patch to globe) and jurisdictional (village to intergovernmental) scales, governance must be coordinated on network (family to trans-society), knowledge (local knowledge to universal law), and temporal (short to long-term) scales, among others. Policies can be poorly coordinated which creates scale mismatches. For example, long-term national policies may conflict with local short-term initiatives (jurisdictional and temporal mismatch). Mismatches persist due to different actors' political commitments to particular food safety approaches, which leads to contentious scale politics regarding food safety. Second, actors must also address a policy scale problem. A national food safety system requires a large-scale, non-incremental policy solution. However, due to fierce scale politics, China has adopted small-scale, gradualist policies that have only exacerbated regulatory incoherence.
The study draws from over 170 interviews with food producers and government regulators in nine counties. The dissertation studies community governance food safety solutions in the Community Supported Agriculture market; foreign-controlled farms in the export sector; co-regulatory initiatives through farmers' cooperatives and dragonhead enterprises; and state-led food safety initiatives in the domestic sector.