United Nations office calls for urgent focus on corruption in food sector

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has brought attention to the pervasive risk of corruption throughout the entire food supply chain. The UNODC's recent analysis underlines how corrupt practices can lead to a loss of public trust in governments, undermine control systems, and jeopardize trade relationships.    

Corruption can manifest in various ways, from prioritizing economic interests over public health at the highest levels, to small-scale bribes resulting in misleading food hygiene certifications. These dishonest actions can give a false sense of security regarding food safety measures and control systems.
For instance, multinational corporations may use their considerable resources to sway policymakers, increasing the permissible levels of harmful pesticides on crops, leading to potential health complications and antimicrobial resistance among consumers.    

The report includes actual cases such as the 2008 incident in China where melamine was added to milk powder and the 2017 Operation Carne Fraca in Brazil, which uncovered bribery among meat hygiene inspectors.    

Corrupt practices can allow illegal operations to go unchecked, skew competition in the food industry through bribes, and hinder inspections or reporting. They can also enable unscrupulous actors to circumvent food safety measures and control systems, increasing the risk of foodborne diseases and the adulteration of food with dangerous ingredients.    

The report further points out that the food industry is vulnerable to corruption as the responsibility for food-related safety measures often falls under multiple agencies or ministries with overlapping mandates. An example is the 2013 horse meat scandal.    

From primary production to retail, corrupt practices can pervade the entire food supply chain. Farmers may bribe authorities to avoid inspections or penalties for not meeting safety or hygiene standards. Meanwhile, companies might use certifications or logos fraudulently on packaging and bribe inspectors for compliance.    

Findings from a 2020 UNODC questionnaire reveal challenges in preventing corruption, including outdated laws, and limited resources to implement food control measures. Problems related to detection and prevention include underreporting by consumers and lenient sanctions.    

Addressing this issue holds numerous benefits, including safeguarding public health, trade relations, the environment, and consumer interests while bolstering trust in governments. The report recommends preventive measures such as identifying vulnerabilities through corruption risk management processes, promoting transparency, and fortifying controls.    

The UNODC urges policymakers, relevant national authorities, and key stakeholders in the food sector to take the lead in resolving this problem. The report also calls for further research into the impacts of corruption on global food supplies.