Food offers highly profitable opportunities to criminal actors. The evolution of the food crime concept, its various meanings, and different harmful activities associated with food crime, which originate from unlawful acts and omissions.
This article also points out that further criminological research needs to address the definitional issue of food crime and inform a more integrated policy approach by considering activities beyond food fraud and the protection of food safety.
Morally questionable, harmful and criminal practices, such as fraudulent activities of adulteration and misrepresentation or addition of chemicals, have a long history in the food sector. Only within the last two decades has criminology considered these acts and omissions under the label of food crime.
Although food crime has a long history, it has come to public attention only after certain notable public scandals. Notwithstanding the huge exposure to several food scandals, however, few people know what food crime means, and criminological interest in the problem has been scant. Practices, such as pollution caused by long-distance food transportation, the sale of adulterated food, the abuse of chemicals, and the exploitation of workers, as well as fraudulent trading behaviours committed by corporations and governments, have been considered more within discourses on food security and the violation of safety regulations rather than activities whose legal and criminological aspects are worth analysing within a socio-legal perspective. Moreover, little research has been carried out so far to investigate the institutional perception and policy response to food crime activities.
This article reviews the academic literature on the phenomenon of food crime and evaluates food regulations and official reports and documents published over the last five years by government authorities active in the sector of food safety and crime.
This article maps the different types of activities under the food crime label, pointing to the definitional issues of the term, food crime, within government policy documents. While these documents use food crime and food fraud interchangeably, a green criminological perspective allows for a broader analysis of the entire spectrum of harmful activities—beyond just that of food fraud—committed in the food sector.
The next section offers a brief outline of the specific context of the study and indicates the sources that have been used. The third section shows how the discourse around food crime has been connected historically to the concept of food security that has been considered by international agencies, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN), as well as within the green criminological literature. The fourth section reviews different conceptualizations of food crime, as formulated in the relevant literature, and the ways in which notions of food security and safety have shaped the understanding of food crime. Following this, the article charts UK institutional perceptions of illicit food-related activities and how enforcement authorities shape policies to protect the safety and authenticity of the food sector.
Finally, the article concludes by returning to a discussion of the definitional issues surrounding the concept of food crime, suggesting that a green criminological perspective on food can help to overcome these terminological and conceptual difficulties and can provide a guide for analysing the harmful and criminal activities committed along the food supply chain.
This article aims at analyzing the institutional approach to the issue of food crime. The backbone of the study has been the analysis of the conceptual and definitional issues surrounding food crime, taking into consideration its historical background. We adopted a qualitative methodology, which consisted of collecting and reviewing the relevant academic literature on food crime and the government policy literature published. Through documentary analysis, this article attempts to examine the government strategy on illicit activities in the food sector and the official reports and policy documents published by government authorities active in the fields of food safety and food crime. For this study, we searched Google Scholar using the keywords “food crime” and “food fraud.” We also located articles by examining the references of other connected articles and reports published in the field. The sources selected from the grey literature reflect those that were issued by the government authorities which are directly and indirectly relevant to the prevention and fight against food-related illicit activities during the aforementioned time period.
The Precursors of the Food Crime Concept: From Food Security to Food Safety
We begin this review of the concept of food crime by looking at how the food supply chain has been studied and linked historically to the conceptualization of food security. After the Second World War, in times of demographic and economic growth, a new agricultural system was developed in industrialized nations. Many countries, in fact, changed their agricultural techniques to achieve self-sufficient levels of production and avoid shortages of food for their growing populations. The modern agricultural system saw for the first time the use of chemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides, and mechanization of the production of crops, such as corn, rice and wheat, which raised concerns about the safety of the practices applied.
These new understandings of food security, in fact, reflect the idea that “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. The concept of food security is clearly addressed in the several reports and policy briefs on the state of food security and nutrition in the world annually published by FAO.
Furthermore, food security is explicitly linked to the right to food, which is protected by article of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This article considers the right to food in connection to the right of a standard of living adequate for health and well-being. Along the same line, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recognizes the right of everyone to adequate food and pushes states to improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food, with the aim of ensuring an equitable distribution of world food supplies. Similarly, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) identifies the human right to adequate food as essential for the enjoyment of all human rights and links it to the fulfilment of human dignity. It continues by stressing that it is the duty of states to guarantee access to food and, in the context of social justice, to adopt specific economic, social and environmental policies to protect the right to adequate food. Interestingly, this document suggests the adoption of international and national strategies that could address critical issues of food security by taking into consideration all aspects of the food system including “the production, processing, distribution, marketing and consumption of safe food, as well as parallel measures in the fields of health, education, employment and social security.”
Food scandals that have occurred over the last thirty years have raised general concerns around the safety of the global food supply chain. The use of antibiotics in agriculture has been linked to antibiotic resistance in humans, and the abuse of genetically modified (GM) food is considered, by some, to pose a threat to public health and safety. The UN World Health Organization (WHO) has devoted special attention to the concept of food safety by considering it an international security priority that is connected to “all the hazards, whether chronic or acute, that may make food injurious to consumer’s health”. According to this perspective, food safety means “handling, storing and preparing food in order to prevent infection, and making sure that food keeps enough nutrients for a healthy diet.” Endorsing this perspective, the FAO released a collection of guidelines and codes of practice with the aim of improving food safety policies and quality standards in order to protect human health.
In summary, food safety reflects attempts to protect public health and to safeguard the food supply chain from illicit practices. In many ways, then, the concept of food safety serves as an antecedent to that of food crime to which I turn next.
Between Food Defense and Food Fraud: The Conceptualization of Food Crime in the Criminological Literature
As this section will show, the criminological literature shapes food crime around the concept of food safety and the prevention of harms by intentional acts perpetrated in the food supply chain. Accordingly, this literature distinguishes food defense as policies and practices adopted against activities intended to harm consumers, and food safety encompassing policies and practices protecting the food system against unintentional contaminations of food products.
The concept of food crime has received limited attention within criminology, although many aspects of the food industry could be investigated under the lenses of criminality and deviance. By reviewing the literature, two main tendencies in the academic study of food crime can be distinguished. First, some researchers focus mainly on the organizational aspects of fraudulent activities in the food sector and the possible policy approaches in the prevention of these illicit practices. Second, some authors embrace critical approaches within green criminology and are interested in discourses around social and environmental harm, as well as social justice debates surrounding access to food.
According to the first strand of these discourses, fraudulent activities committed inside the food sector can be labeled as food fraud. Food fraud is a phenomenon that happens outside of the legitimate food sector and encompasses “the deliberate and intentional substitution, addition, tampering or misrepresentation of food, food ingredients or food packaging; or false or misleading statements made about a product for economic gain”.
This article shows how the concept of food safety has been the foundation of a discourse on the issue of crimes involving food in policy documents and parts of the academic literature. Some academic studies specifically embrace the conceptualizations of food crime adopted by the public agencies and focus on developing strategies for industry and public investigators to prevent and address food fraud. Other research discusses, more generally, the harm and crimes that affect the food sector, questioning the legal definition of crime itself, and considering interests beyond the mere concept of food safety. One of these interests is food security. Indeed, this article shows how the theoretical concept of food crime originates in the concept of food security, which, therefore, represents the starting point of a discourse around the issue of illicit activities in the food sector. In this sense, this article also demonstrates that the safety-oriented policy perspective and the wide theoretical conceptualization of food crime do not match. Criminology could help widen policy approaches by considering activities beyond food fraud and outside the protection of food safety and authenticity. A green criminological perspective could be the most promising approach because it adopts a wider conceptualization of food crime that would address the definitional and conceptual problems around it. Such a conceptualization would allow us to go beyond legalistic definitions of crime established by the law, in order to include discourses around food harms, breaches of administrative law and their potential interactions with violations of criminal law.
A future study could clarify the relations between the wider conceptualization of food crime adopted within the literature and the concept of food safety that is central to food policies. Such an analysis could consider whether a more integrated approach to investigating and preventing food crimes is needed.
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