Enhancing red meat safety through ‘street-level diplomacy’ in Tanzania

Butcher in Arusha, Tanzania

Rising meat consumption in Tanzania – and indeed across low- and middle-income countries – presents new challenges and opportunities for health and development and we have been considering these as part of our social science input into the ZELS-funded ‘Hazards Associated with Zoonotic enteric pathogens in Emerging Livestock’ (HAZEL) meat pathways project, part of the Livestock, Livelihoods and Health programme. While animal-source products like milk and meat are important sources of nutrition in this context, increased production and consumption may also raise disease risk for animals and humans.

A cadre of ‘street level’ state employees, including livestock extension officers, health officers and others are responsible for mitigating these risks through service provision – like animal vaccination and meat inspection – and regulatory enforcement.

Thin on the ground and with few resources, these frontline actors approach their work creatively, and draw on a number of strategies to deal with the challenges they encounter, to perform their day-to-day duties. Some of these are formally sanctioned, while others suggest more flexibility.

Such, more flexible responses – which do not align to the letter of the law – have frequently been seen in the literature as problematic. Indeed, the predominant narrative about the work of these actors is that it is inadequate.

In our paper, published this week in BMC Public Health, we offer an alternative perspective that maps out some of the strategies used by these frontline actors to ensure meat safety. While they do rely on formal regulations and professional relationships, especially during health emergencies or when faced with gross non-compliance, they also remain adaptive, flexible, and keenly sensitive to the economic realities, capacities and knowledge of the people they serve and regulate.

Relationships of trust

Cultivating and managing relationships of trust with communities, livestock keepers, butchers and meat sellers is important in terms of doing what they can in the face of immense resource constraints. This means, in the case of animal vaccination for instance, seeking out particularly vulnerable families to provide free service when possible, or in the case of butchery infrastructure, not insisting on piped running water let alone the ‘foot- or elbow-operated taps’ or electricity stipulated by regulations.

Rather, butchers are encouraged to make ‘realistic’ upgrades to boost meat safety, such as installing easily cleanable tiled walls and counters, and are given time to do so.

Through this approach, frontline actors leverage positive, trusting relationships to exchange knowledge about animal and human health with livestock keepers and meat workers.

In operating in these flexible, contingent ways, frontline actors are undertaking what we call ‘street-level diplomacy’, to boost animal-based livelihoods and ensure availability of meat in their communities, while reasonably managing animal health and red meat safety in locally appropriate and realistic ways.

Although patronage and other power dynamics may be at play, especially in relation to service provision such as animal health work or meat inspection, frontline state employees across contexts can and do also use their discretion to innovate, adapt, and translate policy to context.

Read our open access paper at BMC Public Health and check out additional blogs and resources from us and from our wider research team at the Livestock, Livelihoods and Health website.