Monday, 2 June 2014

Legal compliance: A battle facing complexity?

'Winter Simplicity' by
Doug Brown under a CC license
Some say the food sector is one of the most regulated areas of economic activity. Although a bit counter-intuitive, since making food seems easy to most people and that would not seem to justify having a lot of regulations, the statement is not far from true, at least in Europe.

Under more careful thinking, the argument in favour of such a tight regulatory framework is easy to see: there is a great deal of things that can go wrong in food production and that can cause trouble to consumers, economic losses, etc. The type and severity of that "trouble" depends on the type of the problem, the size and the distribution of the product batch. And, yes, food-borne "trouble" continues to occur even today from time to time (e.g., there seems to be an ongoing incident with Hepatitis A, possibly from contaminated frozen berries) and it is always associated with a corresponding cost.

Even if having a tight regulatory framework is inevitable, at least for the time being, there is no need for that to be unreasonably complex. Of course, here, the word "unreasonably" would be interpreted in a very different way by the different stakeholders of the food industry. Most probably some lawyer would even go as far as to claim that the set of laws for food production is really simple and straightforward (!).

Interestingly, two guys from the Michigan State University attempted to measure the complexity of the Law (in the US Code)  - the research paper and a corresponding presentation are also available. In brief, the two researchers tried to quantify "complexity" by using metrics that would apply to people trying to read the law and comprehend its requirements. One of the approaches was to count the references of a piece of text to other pieces of legislation. (Yes, certain Titles of the Code were rather complex indeed).

I would find it extremely interesting if a similar approach would be routinely implemented to other bodies of law, e.g. the food law in the EU or in its Member States. Or. possibly, to run benchmarks among similarly-oriented bodies of law across countries. That could be a novell way to drive the various legislative bodies to produce regulations that, as a whole, are easier to find, comprehend and apply.

In my humble opinion, clearer regulations would lead to higher compliance, possibly with a lower associated cost. That would mean more money for business to pursue other goals (e.g., environmental performance) or invest elsewhere. In the food sector, higher compliance usually translates to better protection of the consumer and, in turn, higher confidence of the consumer to the food production and distribution chain.

To be fair, there is an increasing trend for authorities to provide consolidated versions of the legislation or - at least - to group all legislation relevant to a topic and provide it to the public as such. That 's very good news but, again, we are nowhere near to claim that we have achieved simplicity and clarity in the legal texts, yet...

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