In relation to the discipline of criminology, Cohen [7: ix] argued there are three orders of reality. First, the object of study, or the ‘thing’ itself, that is, crime and the apparatus for its control—in this case, ‘food fraud’. Second, research and speculation about this thing, that is, how we describe, classify, theorise, explain and develop normative and technical solutions to crime (or ‘food fraud’) as a ‘problem’. Third, reflection about the nature of the whole enterprise itself. Thinking in terms of the interplay between these three levels of reality allows us to critically reflect on the food fraud literature and assess what we know, think we know (based on the methods we use), and/or need to know, about the nature, extent and control of food frauds.
The research literature on food fraud is sparse when compared to other types of fraud (e.g. credit card frauds, corporate frauds, investment frauds, and other ‘organised frauds’) though fraud research generally also remains at the margins of academic and criminological inquiry when contrasted with the analyses of varied volume crimes, such as anti-social behaviours, property crime or interpersonal violence, or even serious and organised crimes. For instance, a search for articles on varied frauds published in Crime, Law and Social Change indicates that four have been published on ‘food fraud’ (two of which involve the current authors), 30 on ‘credit card fraud’, 23 on ‘corporate fraud’, and 16 on ‘investment fraud’, with 41 on ‘anti-social behaviour’, 40 on ‘interpersonal violence’ and 157 on ‘property crime’.Footnote 2 This is a crude and superficial analysis, but indicative of the academic attention devoted to food frauds in a journal with a strong reputation for publishing related research.
This lack of attention reflects (at least) three issues: first, a lack of, or ambiguous, ownership of food fraud cases and enforcement as regulatory fragmentation leads to disinterest or inabilities (due to resource and prioritisation) in taking on food fraud cases, despite emerging policy narratives reinforcing the market and consumer harms of such frauds (although deaths are rare); that, second, leads to reduced (or narrowly targeted) funding for research aiming to analyse the actual nature and underlying generative and real causes of fraud within the food system; and, third, the research difficulties in accessing food fraud networks as whoever is involved in the frauds, from seemingly legitimate food system businesses to entirely illegitimate organised crime groups, and all those in-between, do not generally permit access to outsiders such as researchers. These methodological and data issues are part of the reason for variably plausible accounts of food fraud as they reduce the valid data available on the motivations and drivers of those actors, who either in a pre-planned manner or more reactively, are able to visualise and capitalise on opportunities for fraud. Similarly, measuring the extent of food fraud is notoriously problematic due to a lack of authoritative data and methods with which to measure fraud across sectors and jurisdictions. Estimates of global trade in counterfeit food and drink range from $6.2bn to $40bn [8: 1]. But these estimates have little meaning given the difficulties in quantifying the extent of food frauds, but also do not include the costs of enforcement, the costs to businesses in improving their compliance systems, or the costs of changes in consumer behaviours.
The aforementioned concerns lead to a first fault line. Due to the above limitations, depictions of food fraud and ‘food fraudsters’ in the academic and policy literature (and media) is mostly reliant on known cases that have come to the attention of domestic (e.g. the UK’s National Food Crime Unit) or regional (e.g. EU Food Fraud Network, the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), or EUROPOL’s OPSON reports) enforcement actors. Whilst known cases can be an appropriate analytical starting point for understanding the nature and organisation of particular offences, using such data (even if caveats are recognised) to develop representative accounts (e.g., patterns and trends of fraud) is beset with limitations as our understandings begin to reflect the activities and agendas of enforcement rather than the realities of the phenomena. As Gussow  evidences, the willingness and abilities of enforcement agencies dictate which food frauds are discovered.
In research terms, this means there is a major absence of systematic and robust empirical investigation into the nature of food frauds, their victims and harms, with studies unable to plausibly instantiate theories and typologies of the ‘food fraudster’ beyond offering abstract propositions (that may be valid but not empirically robust). Consequently, many academic studies draw on anecdotal evidence of individual cases, or rely on enforcement data, to put forward concepts and explanations of such offending, and in turn advocate control and policy solutions (including our own earlier work). For instance, studies have analysed reported cases over time to identify trends and patterns of food fraud offending types, leading to conclusions about certain types being more prevalent than others and such findings seemingly providing an evidence-base for targeted interventions and future scientific research. But in line with Cohen’s  observations, such accounts are artefacts of the data and methods used, leading to constructions of the ‘thing’ to be a product of the research, rather than a reflection of reality. These accounts may of course be accurate, but the lack of rigorous data undermines their practical use and reflects an inherently flawed logic, and the implications for control responses and research funding calls are clear as resources may be misdirected.
New and varied data are needed to inform our undertanding of food fraud. The absence of such data in part reflects the relatively new scientific interest in the topic and as such the rich, in-depth qualitative and ethnographic accounts of offending, or the large-N quantitative self-report and victimisation surveys that we see with other areas of crime have not yet emerged. However, there are notable examples that do develop new social scientific quantitative and qualitative data on food crimes and food fraud where the findings and insights reflect the methods used. For example, van Ruth et al. , drawing on the routine activities theory informed SSAFE food fraud vulnerability assessment tool,Footnote 3 interviewed actors from food sector businesses to gain insight into the drivers and enablers of fraud in varied supply chains; Yang et al. [11, 12] undertook interviews and a survey, again drawing on the SSAFE tool, to assess fraud vulnerabilities to the milk supply chain in the Netherlands and China as perceived by industry actors, Kendall et al.  use focus groups with middle-class Chinese consumers to understand attitudes, perceptions and beahvioural responses towards food fraud. These studies also represent rare examples of integrative and collaborative research teams from the social and nature sciences to make sense of the multi-dimenstionality at play in particular food fraud related phenomena.
In line with Cohen, more reflection on the process of food fraud research and subsequent accounts would offer a more critical and plausible take on what we know about food fraud and why certain agendas and approaches that construct the nature of the food fraud problem can be more a product of the research process and the intrinsic politics of disciplines. This is necessary for both analytical reasons, that is, developing multi-faceted and reflexive accounts of food fraud realities and practical reasons, that is, informing enforcement, regulatory and business compliance responses.
Following on from this, a second fault line relates to the focus of inquiry in food fraud research as weak empirical data or policy/enforcement constructions in turn drive subsequent research and corresponding framings. With this in mind, academic scholarship tends to focus food fraud research in two ways; 1. towards food fraud ‘acts’; and 2. towards food fraud ‘actors’. Table 1 outlines the features of these foci of inquiry in food fraud research as based on our understanding of the field. In essence, these varying foci are coterminous, in that the ‘thing’ under study relates to ‘the abuse or misuse of an otherwise legitimate business transaction and an otherwise legitimate social/economic relationship in the food system in which one or more actors undertake acts or omissions of deception or dishonesty to avoid legally prescribed procedures (process) with the intent to gain personal or organizational advantage or cause loss/harm (outcome)’ [14: 611]. Although separated here, both foci can be integrated in research and can offer rich insights into particular manifestations of food frauds and of those involved but within each research orientation, significant disjunctures have emerged, and this has implications for how we understand the reality of the nature of food frauds. In both cases, research might be driven by concerns with particular food fraud targets (e.g., very specific foodstuffs and products) and industries (e.g., red meat or fish) but with little systematic evidence (or intelligence) as to why such targets have been selected.
Food fraud acts and harms
In terms of a focus on specific ‘acts’ of food fraud and their associated harms, concern lies with the nature of the act (or omission), the characteristics of the fraudulent methods and the defining features of the particular behaviours. These acts are usually in line with state defined violations of criminal and regulatory laws, such as intentional frauds or other food laws (see , for an overview of food fraud legal frameworks in the UK and EU). That said, attempts have also been made to broaden scope away from legal violations to a focus on harmful acts to incorporate breaches of morality and ethics (see [16: 12]) where we see focus also on those ‘lawful but awful’  behaviours of corporate elites such as misleading food packaging, contributing to widespread obesity, or food poisoning (see [18: 41–45]). In research terms, ambiguity in relation to legal status ought to be embraced as the ‘problem’ of food fraud cannot be ‘solved’ through attempted categorisation as ‘crime’ or ‘not crime’, as the areas of contestation and controversy makes them sociologically of interest. Whether social scientists frame their focus of inquiry in terms of narrow, legalistic definitions of food fraud, or broaden their focus to also incorporate varied harmful behaviours, it is vital in either case that clear conceptual parameters for their research orientations are developed. ‘Food fraud’ is in some ways a ‘chaotic conception’, or ‘bad abstraction’ (see [2: 138–139]), in that ‘it’ integrates together unrelated and inessential objects and relations, for example, assuming that those involved in the adulteration of foodstuffs behave similarly to those involved in the counterfeiting of alcohol, and this creates issues for explaining and responding to such activities. We see this with predominant policy conceptions that explain varied food frauds almost always as being economically motivated, which neglects the social complexity of human behaviours . Thus, researchers must ensure their concepts reflect objects and relations of study that are internally related in order for their research to be clear and meaningful.Footnote 4
Integrating the sensational with the mundane
Food frauds usually come to public attention, often in the news media, as sensational, exceptional, or ‘newsworthy’ events that are damaging to consumers, other businesses, and the wider public. Prominent examples have included the 2008 melamine milk scandal in China that resulted in six deaths and 50,000 hospitalisations. More recently, cases such as the 2019 slaughter of sick cows in Poland have brought into question governments’ abilities regarding traceability of food supply networks, and generated significant public and academic attention on the way in which food products are sourced, handled, and overseen. While these exceptional events are important in their own right, they tend to be associated with somewhat haphazard and reactive policy responses that are not necessarily implemented effectively in order to reduce vulnerability to food frauds. For instance, the UK National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) was established in 2015 largely as a consequence of the 2013 European horse meat incident, yet such regulatory agencies are typically under-resourced and part of a more complex and fragmented enforcement context [8: 4]. In consequence, the rhetoric and high profile of exceptional events have the potential to influence food fraud policy, and in turn direct scientific research in a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction way that has not necessarily considered the nature and extent of the full range of frauds that occur across societies.
Policy and research accounts of food fraud must be wary of framing and portraying food fraud acts as exceptional and episodic events that are detached from otherwise licit, functional, and unproblematic market or business processes. This obscures routine and mundane frauds generated by the structure and dynamics of the food system and market [14, 19, 20]. The extent and scale of food frauds are not binary issues, as related behaviours exist on spectrums of greater or lesser frequency, and greater or lesser severity and harm. Foregrounding of the exceptional and episodic, whether in the media, policy or research, is problematic as it normalises routine frauds that are considered not to be ‘newsworthy’ or deserving of policy attention due to their less severe or prominent nature and ensures policy, in the UK specifically, continues to foreground concepts of food safety and food authenticity . We see this elsewhere, for instance, where concerns over adulterated avocado oils in the US , non-compliant raw drinking milk suppliers in New Zealand  and the closing of fraudulent ketchup factories by the Punjab Food Authority , receive notably less media or policy attention when compared to scandals such as the 2013 European horse meat incident. When taken as separate events, this inconsistent attention is perhaps understandable, since some individual cases will inevitably be more ‘newsworthy’ than others due to factors such as who the victims are, the severity of consequences or how widespread the fraud was, both in terms of geographic scope and number of actors involved. However, this attention on sensationalist cases risks detaching individual cases from the standard, routine business processes within which they occur.
Focusing on routine and embedded instances of food fraud is important in order to understand the full scope of underpinning processes that occur within the spheres of business, industry, regulation, and policy-making. van Ruth et al.  outline key factors associated with food fraud vulnerability in licit markets, including opportunities, motivations, and control measures, which intersect with standard business practices including opportunities (both technical and in time and space), economic drivers, culture and behaviour, as well as technical and managerial control measures. An analysis of the Spanish olive oil market by Lord et al.  showed that understanding situational actions in conjunction with ‘entrepreneurial’ activity can be an important cornerstone of preventing and tackling food fraud that is embedded within business structures. In addition, if left unchecked, routine food frauds could become more frequent or severe in the event of limited accountability, which highlights the importance of ensuring that mundane cases are given sufficient attention. The desire by researchers, industry and policy makers to appear to be taking action against sensational events ultimately serves to obscure embedded practices within industry that also warrant attention. The key concern is that the drift towards the exceptional, sensational and episodic depicts an unbalanced account of the reality of food frauds, and downplays the complexity that underpins the occurrence of food frauds, and both these issues in turn undermine the practical adequacy of knowledge that is produced for increasing understanding and informing policy and enforcement.
Food fraud actors
In terms of a focus on the ‘actors’ involved in food frauds, studies in this orientation foreground the characteristics of the actors involved in the offending, seeking to highlight distinctive features such as part of an ‘organised crime group’, or business ‘rogues’ (usually individuals). For example, Elliott [27: 6] concluded in his review of the integrity of supply networks that ‘[f]ood fraud becomes food crime when it no longer involves a few random acts by ‘rogues’ within the food industry but becomes an organised activity perpetrated by groups who knowingly set out to deceive and or injure those purchasing a food product’. He goes on further to state ‘[b]ut the serious end of food fraud is organised crime, and the profits can be substantial’ [27: 12]. This framing is problematic for two main reasons. First, it implies food frauds are predominantly carried out by individual actors, whether people or businesses, and whether internal industry actors or external ‘organised crime groups’, downplays the organised deviant activities of large corporate players within the food system, in some cases with the collusion of the state (see [20, 28]), and the market dysfunctionality that creates opportunities for fraud across and within food networks and trading relations (see ). Second, it suggests food frauds are random and in some way episodic and exceptional (see above), rather than sustained and embedded practices within the food industry that are harmful in the aggregate. One key issue is that whoever becomes involved in the frauds, a necessary aspect of all cases is involvement in some form of legitimate business environments and transactions, hence more can be gained from analysing food fraud as an endogenous phenomenon of the food system . In addition, Gussow  argues that motives and gains are often misleadingly conflated. In other words, actors’ intentions and motivations are often reduced to simplistic economic rationality, neglecting the diversity of incentives that offenders might encounter, and in turn producing unsophisticated successionist accounts of what motivates food fraud offenders, and this undermines the practical adequacy of reductionist accounts.
Integrating agency and structure through the lens of the market
One further issue that arises from the individualisation of food fraud offenders is that regulatory approaches target potential actors instead of focusing on the structural conditions—market structure, complexity of supply chains, contractual arrangements—that create ready-made structures for the commission of crimes in the system. A consequence of individualising food frauds, or embedding strategic responses within the policy discourse of ‘serious and organised crime’, is the perceived necessity by states to criminalise responses at the level of these individual events rather than address the real, deeper mechanisms that enable such crimes to occur. It may also be effective to develop systematic assessments such as script analysis, to identify the particular antecedents and factors that come together to enable frauds to take place, and situational prevention, in order to reduce vulnerability to food fraud in the short term (see ). These assessments would enhance opportunities for researchers, industry practitioners, and policy makers to proactively try to prevent food fraud from occurring in the first place.
The key issue is that individualising food frauds diverts attention from systemic, embedded, and cultural regularities associated with business, market, regulatory and political-economic structures. For instance, as above, reducing explanations for food frauds to that of individual ‘rogue’ criminals and/or organised crime groups pathologises food frauds as distinct criminal activities that bear little or no relation to otherwise routine and legal organisational processes. Food frauds are regularly depicted as perpetrated by external crime groups who operate transnationally and threaten the integrity of otherwise robust food systems . This depiction is reflected both at a media and policy level, where headlines such as ‘Crime gangs expand into food fraud’  dominate, and where enforcement agendas have targeted efforts against food fraud at the economic goal-based activities of organised crime groups . This narrative may be convenient for governments as they reduce demands for structural and cultural reforms to dysfunctionality in the food system. Yet enforcement bodies such as the UK NFCU continue to assert that whilst there are exceptions, there does not appear to be any consistent organised crime activity in food fraud, with food crimes commited by those with existing roles in the food system [31: 22], [32: 6]. Simultaneously, however, the NFCU’s response strategy has now fallen in line with the UK Home Office’s Serious and Organised Crime Strategy [33: 1], and this has implications for the framing and response to food frauds in line with strategies developed in response to organised crime.
Analytically, more can be gained by integrating research questions about interactions of individual agency and offender collaborations with the emergence and visualisation of opportunity structures generated by the structures of the food system, including business processes, regulation, markets, and their political-economic governance. Multi-dimensional accounts are key to understanding the social complexity of food frauds and this involves embracing the tensions that exist across varied disciplines. For instance, long (and transnational) supply chains, supply chains with multiple intersections, large multi-national companies with opaque ownership structures, low cost food production and food processing of cheap food residues all contribute to food fraud opportunities. Pressures within particular industries, such as narrow profit margins, the nature of business relationships between farmers and buyers, as well as how easy it is to tamper with specific products, all contribute to a richer understanding of how and why food frauds occur within otherwise legal business settings. Relatedly, food fraud also has political consequences. Governments must constantly ensure that they can deliver food cheaply—there is an interplay between cheap food, food production and government approaches to food regulation that have emerged and are influenced by particular geo-historicl contexts. In the UK, in the post-Brexit period of rapid social change, we can anticipate a changes in regulation as food is sourced outside of EU regulatory framewors, creating spaces for fraudulent actions.
In these terms, germane to producing plausible and practically adequate knowledge is the foregrounding of the interplay between the emergence and visualisation of criminal opportunities, the networks of criminal actors and their respective skills, expertise and abilities, the control mechanisms in place and the varied settings, situations and structural antecedents that shape the concentration or distribution of these varying causal factors. A multi-faceted analysis of how food frauds emerge in particular places and times, and of the diverse antecedents that shape this, offers a more concrete insight into why certain actors become involved in certain types of fraud under different conditions. Analyses of the structure of the market, and in particular clearly integrating analyses of how food is sourced, produced, distributed and marketed relate to criminal opportunities is needed, otherwise the above fault lines will remain in place.
Moving attention from sensational and individualised explanations in order to better understand routine, structural processes, are well-grounded topics in the literature on organisational and corporate crime. In this context, researchers foreground arguments that crimes and harms are routine and systematic by examining ongoing, enduring, complex relationships between private and public actors [34: 177]. In particular, Bernat and Whyte  argue that criminal and harmful actions should be analysed as part of broader processes and systems of production, rather than specific ‘moments of rupture’ that serve to separate events from processes. A critical perspective may frame these system-wide analyses as a product of industry structure and vested business ownership and interests, but focusing on the food system at industry and organisational levels provides a more nuanced discussion when compared to explanations based solely on criminality or organised crime.