Can ethical certification prevent food fraud?

Food certification bodies, if backed by criminal penalties, can help deter food fraud.

As world trade increased, the pressure on companies to develop initiatives to adopt fair and ethical sourcing also increased.

Ethical, sustainable, social and environmental certification organizations endorse a wide range of industries and their specific products. These organizations ensure that food manufacturers meet various standards, including fair prices and safe working conditions.

Ethics certification bodies have a unique transnational regulatory role. The capacities and responsibilities of these organizations transcend borders and may overlap with systems of governance, providing a necessary additional layer of control. These organizations, however, need to be agile and continue to innovate to ensure that they can regulate even if they are large.

The increase in certification bodies matches the rapid growth in sales of certified products. Combined with the rise of ethical consumerism, industries can count on the profits generated by products with ethical certifications because consumers are willing to pay extra for them.

Although not formally defined, ethical production collectively refers to production free from child labor, paying fair and equal wages and providing safe working conditions. The industry-led ethical production movement aimed to “put people and the planet before profits” and tackle the systemic damage and injustices committed against vulnerable people involved in the global food supply chain.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the International Labor Organization and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development support many international standards that guide the sustainability goals in which certification bodies operate.

Building on the United Nations Millennium Development Goals of 2000, the Sustainable Development Goals moved the conversation forward by recognizing the important role of balancing environmental health and human security. A common thread linking several sustainable development goals is a push towards ethical trade.

While certification bodies help industries achieve and maintain these goals, there are no authoritative standards for ethical trading, only voluntary codes of conduct that generally align with international laws and development goals. sustainable. Unlike organic products, formal regulatory oversight of ethical certification appears to be limited; instead, organizations are self-regulating. Compared to the registered Fairtrade mark, ethical trade is not registered and has no legal status.

Defining ethical trade globally and agreeing on consistent standards would go a long way in helping certification bodies hoping to gain legal status to regulate and enforce certified standards. But research suggests that self-regulating corporate social responsibility efforts adopted by private and non-governmental organizations are more likely to be effective than government regulation.

To secure the reputation of certification bodies, however, governments may need to regulate. Research indicates that consumers are considering a role for government in regulating certification bodies.

In addition, the lack of government control opens up many possibilities for criminal activity. The United Nations defines food fraud as activities aimed at intentional deception, for example by mislabelling, adulterating, distorting and repackaging food. Notably, in a certified ethical industry, human rights violations and corruption that defy certification standards are considered food fraud.

This new approach would add an additional regulatory layer to prevent mislabelling of foods and the production of foods that defy certification standards, including child and forced labor, use of banned pesticides, fraud and corruption. .

In addition, there is a close relationship between developing countries and the existence of corruption and, as such, the authorities in these jurisdictions may not prioritize these crimes. Since the aim of ethical certification is to improve the working conditions of workers in developing countries and their standard of living, the potential for neglect of corruption in certification needs to be addressed.

Local law enforcement agencies should be responsible for crimes such as forced labor and fraud; However, there are several reasons why these crimes go undetected, including the remote geographic location of farms, the lack of police resources (human and physical), and the normalization of crimes, such as child labor, within the community. some communities.

Large companies such as Starbucks and Nestle should also ensure that farmers in their supply chains comply with ethical trade certification requirements. In doing so, these businesses can reduce the risk of crime through increased surveillance and community engagement aimed at changing social attitudes towards normalized criminal activity.

Government regulators may also have a role to play in maintaining the legitimacy of these organizations. Ultimately, ethical certification organizations are in a unique position to provide regulatory oversight over the global food supply chain and crack down on crimes that do not meet ethical standards.

Jade lindley is Senior Lecturer in the Law School of the University of Western Australia and a Fellow of the Stretton Institute at the University of Adelaide.

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