Keeping up with the cooks? Food regulation in a digital age

The pace of digital change poses a significant challenge in regulated industries such as food

Over the last decade, technology has been increasingly disrupting the worlds that are regulated by our government. Legislation written in the 90s did not account for the huge shift from static, physical infrastructures to the ever-changing, highly networked, virtual world in which we now live. And how could it? This was a world before the widespread use of mobile phones; before you could buy just about any good or service from anyone, anywhere in the world, at the touch of a button.

With the shift from the slow to change and dependable, to the dynamic and hard to predict has come a growing knowledge gap between the regulator and the regulated. As technology businesses emerge and evolve ever more quickly, it has become extremely difficult for legislators to understand – let alone adequately regulate – their activity.

Regulation should uphold standards, protect consumers, and promote and support business. It's a difficult balance to get right, particularly when keeping up with the pace of change is itself such a challenge. Technology businesses, and platform businesses in particular, don't always operate in ways that are easy to keep track of. It's often unclear why they make decisions (when social media companies remove certain pieces of content, for example), and increasingly these decisions are made by machines.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) – responsible for public health in relation to food – recognised that this narrative characterised the UK's food ecosystem, with the proliferation of digital platforms operating in this space.

They were keen to substantially narrow the knowledge gap, to evolve the current regulatory model, and to test more radical approaches to regulating a disruptive world. I’ve spent the past six months consulting with the FSA as part of this work, specifically in the realm of platforms.

The platform model in the food industry

We worked with the FSA to understand what platforms are, what types exist and how they’re impacting the food world, in order to support the Agency’s programme of change.

Here's a snapshot of what we encountered under each of these three themes:

  1. Understanding what a platform is and how they operate: I worked from the existing research, both academic and commercial, and spoke with large and small platforms to understand how they self-define and operate. I centred the work in the larger conversation of platformisation, with the support of Bill Murray and the research his team has produced at Leading Edge Forum, which runs research-led advisory programmes to inform decision making.

  2. Defining the types of platforms in operation: platforms are often incorrectly ‘lumped in’ together; I wanted to create a taxonomy that could differentiate them and enable clearer conversations. This was challenging, as many platforms use multiple business models and operate in more than one vertical. My classification focused on how the food moved from the vendor to the consumer – was the interaction structured or informal? Was the food delivered on demand or at a scheduled time? Were the vendors restaurants, shops, home cooks or virtual brands?

  3. Considering how they impact the food ecosystem: I analysed how platform businesses impacted both the restaurants they partnered with and others in the landscape. My team interviewed consumers to find out their awareness and expectations of how platforms work, especially where they were bundling – or unbundling – steps in the supply chain.

    We also spoke with people setting up to sell food from home via platforms for the first time, and what they understood about how to keep their customers safe. In this strand we looked at the challenges but also the many opportunities of platform businesses, such as the huge store of information now digitally available on the supply chain and the ability of these ‘hubs’ to amplify messages to their restaurant partners and consumers.

Bringing collaboration to the table at the FSA

While the work continues to evolve, for me it’s been an excellent example of two things.

The first is seeing a regulator take a more hand-in-hand approach with industry, such as socialising learnings with platform businesses to ensure we’re on the same page. The second is the involvement of digital voices in designing regulatory systems. Along with systems thinking and experimentation, expanding diversity of thought is a key attribute in successfully regulating disruptive worlds, and I hope we’ll see more of it in the coming years, especially in the remit of online harms.

To find out more about how the FSA is pioneering the regulation of hybrid physical/digital businesses in the food sector, have a listen to this podcast where I speak to Julie Pierce, Director of Openness, Data and Digital for the Food Standards Agency and Bill Murray of Leading Edge Forum.

I also presented at ‘Understanding Food in a Digital World’ as part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science, co-hosted by the FSA.

We’ll be publishing our work later this year, and continue to advise the Food Standards Agency in this space.


Lucy Hart
Lucy Hart
Senior Delivery Manager

Lucy is an expert delivery manager with experience in both startups and the public sector, known for her ability to clearly articulate complex ideas.

View profile