Legitimized fraud and the state-corporate criminology of food – a Spectrum-based theory


The role that food corporations have in determining our health and nutrition is concomitant with the power and influence that corporations exercise across all commercial sectors. These large, powerful, and often multinational entities – collectively referred to as Big Food – employ a robust array of strategies to advance the organizational interests associated with a seemingly paradoxical business model: securing the continuous and ever-growing consumption of food products increasingly associated with negative health outcomes. As this model proliferates globally, the implications of this contradiction warrant specific attention to the activities of Big Food corporations through a critical criminological framework. The pervasive and increasingly legitimized activity of Big Food relies on a legal, regulatory, and moral framework that allows for the relegation of all non-market oriented value systems to be secondary to a pro-corporatist ideological and moral superstructure. Whereas previous scholarship has contributed to an understanding of what occurs when profit-maximization values collide with – and then co-opt – public health and nutrition interests, the present study offers a spectrum-based theory to explain how various degrees of food fraud are systematically incentivized by the legal privileges of corporations and the hegemonic moral economy of neoliberal governance.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    The top twenty rankings in the Forbes 500 list (2017) also include food retailers such as Walmart (#1), Costco (#16) and Kroger (#18). Amazon (#12) can be considered as part of Big Food insofar as the company increases its logistics and supply-chain activities related to the Amazon Pantry service. Amazon’s ranking may change in the near future due to the company’s 2017 purchase of Whole Foods [4].

  2. 2.

    [26]note, while empirical literature demonstrate how corporate self/deregulation strategies have failed to protect human life, criminalization (i.e., formal criminal justice interventions) as a deterrent strategy has seldom been seriously considered. See also Pemberton [27].

  3. 3.

    For example, emerging subfields that represent this widening of the criminological research base include studies on wildlife criminology [41] and conservation criminology [42]; rural criminology [43]; translational criminology [44]; and crimmigration [45, 46]. Conversely, lines of inquiry that might have traditionally been associated with crime and justice studies have been addressed in other disciplines. For example, the Johns Hopkins University Center for Gun Policy and Research is housed within the Bloomberg School of Public Health. An example closer to the present topic includes the work of Walters [47], who articulated the criminological relevance of corporate activities related to genetically modified food.

  4. 4.

    By this they mean the state or quality of producing conditions favorable to whatever is labeled as “crime.” The term is not deterministic, but probabilistic, in that the corporate form will not inevitably produce “crimes” in all corporations, but instead incentivize the consistent maintenance of some rate or statistical likelihood of crime.

  5. 5.

    Official criminal justice data (e.g., the National Incident-Based Report System) suggest that fraud is overwhelmingly committed by blue-collar, non-elite offenders, or “garden-variety” offenses as coined by the Yale White-Collar Crime Project (see [57, 58]). Yet the most measurably harmful forms of conscious, intentional decisions are not at the level of street crime but attributable to the crimes of the powerful (see [17, 28]).

  6. 6.

    For example, the 18 U.S. Code Chapter 47 contains the statutes related to federal criminal offenses, ranging from fraudulent statements, bank fraud, check fraud, public assistance fraud, and more (see [70]).

  7. 7.

    As Charles Harrington [90], Assistant Professor of Hygiene at Harvard Medical School once stated at the 1903 meeting of the Laboratory Section of the American Public Health Association: “[Sodium sulfite] is a food preservative…used more especially on account of its effect on the appearance of the food to which it is added, its preservative influence being decidedly a minor consideration. It confers upon mince meat an abnormally brilliant red color, which conveys to the purchase the idea of freshness. Its most extensive use is in the preparation of that form of minced meat which we know as ‘Hamburg Steak.’ This is made from beef trimming and inferior parts of the carcass; and after it has received its chemical treatment, it takes on a redness that is much more pleasing to the eye than the grayish-brown color which develops within a few hours if no sulphite is added…Meat which is in reality well advanced in decomposition is readily disposed of as perfectly fresh, for although the number of bacteria per gram may run as high as 500 millions, it may give off no marked odor. The Paisano defendants ultimately faced conviction of only one felony count.

  8. 8.

    We do not endorse nor intend to imply support for the death penalty in state-corporate food crime. The Chinese milk scandal is selectively chosen to demonstrate how private agents (or institutions) can conceivably be regulated, or in this case, punished, for what corresponds to an egregious form of food crime.

  9. 9.

    Leon & Ken [93] raise questions about the adjudication of the corporate organizational form. See also Tombs & Whyte [39].

  10. 10.

    Criminal settlement rates vary widely by jurisdiction and offense type (see [97]) but for both federal and state-level civil suits, the overwhelming minority of cases (less than 10%) ever go to trial [98,94,100].

  11. 11.

    If the relationship between public health measures and food regulation is one that is primarily within the domain of “free choice” and “individual responsibility”, then a) intentionally misleading claims on food packaging and b) the correspondingly anemic enforcement of laws that might conceivably deter such claims, renders that position indefensible and logically incoherent.

  12. 12.

    Economist Milton Friedman made his influential pronouncement in Capitalism and Freedom that, “There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits” ([117]:133). Within this doctrine, any social initiative, whether meant to affect employees, communities, or customers, must be subsumed under the profit motive.

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    When considering state economic intervention, some scholars of the financial industry have studied the contradiction represented by corporate behemoths that are simultaneously too big to fail and too big to jail, placing regulators in the untenable (i.e., contradictory) position of having to punish normal capitalist behavior while also ensuring their continuation ([121, 122]: 526).

  14. 14.

    Tombs and Whyte [39] provide historical examples from the age of exploration and colonial era, where state entities granted corporate charters that would symbiotically benefit the sponsoring state and the sponsored private party. Today, economic indices continue to influence how political and legislative power-holders navigate the concerns of their constituencies. A thriving economy – no matter how disparate the distributive benefits – symbiotically benefits political incumbents and private coffers.

  15. 15.

    For example, the law schools whose graduates are perceived as being of the highest public and private pedigree also generate scholarship that influences the legal profession [133, 134]. The Yale Law Journal – one of the most highly regarded legal publications in the world – would likely include in its readership the entire federal judiciary, considering that every single Supreme Court Justice attended law school at either Harvard or Yale [133]. In a 2008 publication in The Yale Law Journal, Diskant [135] asserts that “corporations are under attack” and that “the area of arguably greatest risk to corporations in Modern America [is] criminal prosecution” (p. 128). The first three words of this article are “In Post-Enron America,” consistent with the tone of disagreement with the ways in which the Department of Justice “aggressively” prosecuted Enron for their fraudulent activity (see [95]).


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The authors would like to thank Gregg Barak, Alejandro Portes, Dwight C. Smith, Jr., and the anonymous reviewers of this journal for providing helpful feedback at earlier stages of the manuscript.

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Leon, K.S., Ken, I. Legitimized fraud and the state-corporate criminology of food – a Spectrum-based theory. Crime Law Soc Change 71, 25–46 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10611-018-9787-6

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