The Fox Guarding the Henhouse: Coregulation and Consumer Protection in Food Safety, 1946 – 2002

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Most citizens, business leaders, and government regulators can agree that inspections of food and consumer goods constitute a valuable and even “essential” task of governments. Nevertheless, these groups frequently disagree on what “inspection” means, who should carry it out, and how they should accomplish that goal. When American policymakers first attempted to shift food inspection responsibilities from federal agents to company employees during the 1970s, federal inspectors and consumers denounced these reforms as “the fox guarding the hen house.” Yet, as late as 2002, U.S. district courts admitted that the term “inspection” in key American food safety laws has never been clearly defined.

This dissertation critically analyzes these claims by retracing the origins and expansion of federal oversight of the poultry industry in the United States over the last half of the twentieth century, beginning with the origins of the 1958 Poultry Products Inspection Act and concluding with the establishment of the New Poultry Inspection System in 2014. In the process, this project maps changes in food safety regulation onto broader trends in regulatory governance over the course of the twentieth century, including shifts from state to federal jurisdiction, from public to private oversight, and from domestic to global networks of production and distribution. Rather than relying on simple explanations of capture or regulatory overreach, this project concludes that changes in food safety regulation should be understood in terms of a “continuum” of coregulation, determined by a balance of difficult tradeoffs. Rather than a statement of fact, the title of the dissertation reflects an honest interrogation of the possibilities and consequences afforded by cooperation between public and private entities.

Drawing on archival records, original field interviews, newspapers, periodicals, and government documents, this research also reveals how an emerging system of international trade affected post-1945 developments in U.S. law and policy, and how American business leaders worked alongside regulators to reshape global standards at the turn of the twenty-first century. Throughout, the debate over safe food doubles as a contest over the division of public and private interests, whose expertise mattered in decision making, and what citizens can and should expect of their governments in a democratic society.






Merck, Ashton (2020). The Fox Guarding the Henhouse: Coregulation and Consumer Protection in Food Safety, 1946 – 2002. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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