Food Fraud and the Partnership for a ‘Healthier’ America: A Case Study in State-Corporate Crime

Abstract

At a moment of heightened public concern over food-related health issues, major corporations in the food industry have found their products and practices under scrutiny. Needing to be understood as socially responsible, these corporations have established partnerships with the state to construct a positive, proactive, and cooperative public image. One major public–private partnership that evolved from former First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative—the Partnership for a Healthier America—serves as a case study in this paper, which analyzes the consequences and social harms perpetuated by a public health campaign bound by the imperative to maximize profit. By using trusted state actors to deliver accurate but deceptive claims about food companies’ commitment to public health, this public–private partnership actively misleads the public and potentially exacerbates public health challenges, warranting a skeptical revision of how we understand corporate social responsibility and neoliberal governance on issues of health and nutrition. As a form of fraud, these attempts to mislead the public go beyond the actions of public sector individuals or members of corporate boards, but are structurally incentivized by the legal rights, regulatory privileges, and profit-related incentives central to the modern corporate form. While conventional criminological research tends to underemphasize state and corporate harms, we make use of a critical criminological perspective to analyze state-corporate partnerships in the space between food industry practices and public health policy.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    An itemized list of all PHA affiliates is available online at (http://ahealthieramerica.org/our-partners/).

  2. 2.

    Criminogenic refers to 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” for all food corporations, but instead incentivize the consistent maintenance of some rate or statistical likelihood of crime. If the corporate form were criminogenic, it would mean that food-related crimes/harms are not isolated incidents or sporadic accidents, but expected by-products that will consistently occur at some avoidable rate.

  3. 3.

    While the concept of the “obesity rate” is problematic for a number of reasons (see, e.g., Guthman 2011), it is notable that the most recent National Center for Health Statistics report indicates that the overall youth obesity rate has actually increased from 2010, when the PHA was initiated (Fryar et al. 2016).

  4. 4.

    A nuanced presentation of the various definitional challenges for white-collar and corporate crime is beyond the scope of our focus. Readers are encouraged to see Geis (2016) and Friedrichs (2010).

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Correspondence to Kenneth S. Leon.

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Leon, K.S., Ken, I. Food Fraud and the Partnership for a ‘Healthier’ America: A Case Study in State-Corporate Crime. Crit Crim 25, 393–410 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10612-017-9363-x

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Keywords

  • Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Childhood Obesity
  • Obesity Rate
  • Private Partnership
  • Operationalize Corporate Social Responsibility