The emerging significance of corruption in our global food system

Posted: 10 July 2024 | | No comments yet

Professor Chris Elliott describes how corruption significantly impacts the food system, as revealed by a comprehensive study on food-related corruption, highlighting five major types.

Chris Corner Feature

By Professor Chris Elliott

Corruption is a word we hear frequently, whether it’s about elections, politicians, businesses or business people. Globally it’s on the rise, as measured by the ‘Corruption Index’.

Denmark comes out as the least corrupt country in the world while Somalia ranks last. The UK has fallen to a ranking of 20th over the past few years. I’ve talked with a number of businesses who make important decisions regarding whether to trade with (or not) countries based on their ranking due to the associated risks.

I was struck by a recently published academic article titled ‘The role of corruption in global food systems: a systematic scoping review’. It was written by a group pf Canadian and Australian researchers and it made very interesting reading that I thought would be useful to share with New Food readers. The study reviewed around 230 scientific publications on the topic of food related corruption. While this number might seem quite high, in terms of academic publications on a topic it is relatively low and over 50 percent of them were published during the last few years. Thus I think of it as very much an emerging topic that needs to be explored and understood in much more detail.

The authors of the study created five major headings to describe the various types of corruption described in the articles they reviewed.

The first of these is bureaucratic corruption and was the form of corruption most frequently found. In most cases it was the public sector that was implicated. Those who could wield political influence through the power they held, or traded this political power for goods and services for their own benefit, were identified. 

The second heading was the one that I am most familiar with in terms of my own research and investigations; that of food fraud. This is how individuals or organisations set out to cheat businesses and consumers by the adulteration, counterfeiting or making false claims about food and beverage products to reap financial benefits.

Food fraud: An update direct from the horse’s mouth

Organised crime was the third heading described in the study. A raft of different ways in which this can be manifested were listed and included malpractices such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing; exploitation of labour across supply chains from farms to food service, collusion, money laundering and theft. I was quite pleased that they found a strong overlap between organized crime and food fraud, where ‘food crimes’ were described. This is term that I coined when I investigated the European horsemeat scandal. Ever since this I have tried to convince many that the overlap is one of the major and growing threats to the integrity of the global food system.

The fourth heading was the one I was least aware of; corporate political activity. It mainly concerns acts of lobbying or other tactics that corporations and businesses used to influence policies that affected the food system. For example, pushing for agricultural subsidies which will keep the costs of food commodities lower. The authors stated that this is rather a ‘grey area’ of corruption and I’m not wholly convinced it’s a good fit at all. To me lobbying, if conducted properly, is a legitimate means of  influencing food policies and is conducted worldwide.

The final heading is clearly a form of corruption; that of bribery. Quite a list of examples were included in the study and I’ve selected a few examples such as excessive financial payments in exchange for goods, transporting food products across borders, provision of a positive food safety inspection result regardless of whether products or premises met regulatory standards. I recall once where I found bribery to be involved in a food fraud incident that it was regarded as ‘normal business practise’ in that country.

The study draws a number of important conclusions in terms of the negative effects of these forms of corruption. Clearly the exploitation of workers looms large as does the potential food safety consequences. Economic losses at both company and country level can result and foreign direct investments which lead to loss of output, export revenue and employment.

In the review it did seem that there are few proposed solutions to dealing with corruption in the food system. But at least it has highlighted that there are major issues which are not well recognised to date. Perhaps if more of these start to get mentioned on the corporate risk registers of large food companies then they, like many other forms of corruption, will be taken more seriously in terms of how international business is conducted.

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