The risk of corruption exists at every stage of the food supply chain, according to an analysis by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The UNODC publication highlights some of the main potential risks along the supply chain and discusses how they could be mitigated. It also mentions how the issue can impact government trust, weaken control systems, and threaten trade relationships.
Corrupt practices range from the highest level in the setting of economic above public health interests to the smallest bribe paid to an inspector to incorrectly issue a food hygiene certificate, which may be used to give the false impression that adequate food safety measures are in place and control systems are fit-for-purpose.
One example given is a restaurant owner who bribes a food inspector to ignore hygiene failings and award the establishment a top safety rating. However, the site may then be responsible for food poisoning cases among customers, leading people to question the rating system. On a larger scale, multinational companies with vast resources may exert influence on policymakers to increase the allowed level of a harmful pesticide on crops, leading to antimicrobial resistance or health issues among consumers.
Dangers of corrupt practices
Real examples cited in the report included milk powder adulterated with melamine in China in 2008 and Operation Carne Fraca in 2017 in Brazil which found bribery of meat hygiene inspectors.
Corruption can influence law enforcement officers to ignore illegal operations, it can undercut competition in the food industry through bribes to related authorities, and it can ensure that inspections do not take place or results are not reported, or motivate customs officers to allow unsafe foods to pass through border inspections, found the report.
It can also be used by unscrupulous actors to get around the food safety measures and control systems put in place for public protection. Corruption related to these measures and control systems can also contribute to the spread of foodborne diseases. It also amplifies the risk of foods being adulterated with cheap or dangerous ingredients before being offered to consumers.
Another reason the food industry may be susceptible is that the responsibility for food-related safety measures and control systems is often shared by different agencies or ministries who may have overlapping mandates, said the report, citing the 2013 horse meat scandal.
Importance of mitigating risk
At primary production, farmers whose sites do not meet safety or hygiene standards may bribe the relevant authorities to ensure that inspections do not take place or that breaches of standards are not reported, and sanctions are not applied. Given the large quantities and perishable nature of food, some may seek non-compliant ways to minimize waste losses and offload goods into the market.
Further up the chain, companies may attempt to include certifications or logos on packaging even though such recognitions have not been awarded for that product, and then bribe inspectors. Firms seeking to maximize profit and minimize costs may seek to get around food safety measures that involve significant financial, technical or human resource investments.
Data from a UNODC questionnaire in 2020 with 32 responses showed challenges in preventing corruption such as outdated legislation and limited capacity and resources to implement food control measures. Issues related to detection and prevention included low rates of reporting by consumers and lenient sanctions.
Benefits of tackling the problem include protecting public health, trade relations, the environment, and consumer interests as well as building trust in governments.
Preventive measures such as using the corruption risk management process to identify vulnerabilities, promoting transparency and strengthening controls could help, found the report.
The paper encourages policymakers, relevant national authorities and key stakeholders in the food sector to take a leading role in addressing the problem. There was also a call for further research into the effects of corruption on global food supplies.
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