Review urges government intervention in food crime

A review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks has suggested that the government and Food Standards Agency (FSA) must play a major role in preventing food crimes.

The review was published today by Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast, who was asked to look at what can be done to improve food integrity by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Health in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.

Elliott said a specialist ‘Food Crime Unit’, with the expertise to undertake investigations into serious food fraud, should be hosted by the FSA. He also called for food authenticity powers to return to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to protect consumers, and stated that parties who operate and manage the food chain should put consumers first, with primary objectives being food safety and crime prevention.

“I believe criminal networks have begun to see the potential for huge profits and low risks in this area. The food industry – and thus consumers – are currently vulnerable. We need a culture within businesses involved in supplying food that focuses on depriving those who seek to deceive consumers. A food supply system that is much more difficult for criminals to operate in is urgently required,” said Elliott.

Other suggestions included a project to explore the option of a shared public laboratory service, which would feature public analysts testing authenticity in Local Authority-owned labs.

“The UK has some of the highest standards of food safety in the world. Food production is a global industry and we need to ensure that our high standards are maintained across the whole supply chain,” Elliott said.

“The horsemeat crisis clearly showed criminal activity in the global food chain and while the next stage of my review will gather more evidence on this it is right that measures are in place to further protect consumers. The food industry and the government are already striving to achieve this.”

The FSA welcomed the report, claiming it recognised “the high standards” of UK food safety, and the value of the Agency’s existing work with Defra and local authorities to detect and deter food fraud.

“However, the need for a more coordinated and proactive approach to food crime is the principal theme of the report and Professor Elliott is right to highlight that there is a role for central government, local authorities and the food industry to play in this area,” said an FSA spokesperson.

The FSA also said it supported the European Commission in its work to establish an EU food fraud unit, as it recognised that supply chains were “complex and international”.

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) also welcomed the report, saying it will work closely with member companies, industry bodies and organisations and the government to develop an approach.

BMPA director Stephen Rossides welcomed the report’s statement that the UK has access to “perhaps the safest food in the world”. ”But we also recognise that food crime, even when it does not pose a food safety risk, undermines public trust and confidence in the food industry. It is paramount that we restore and maintain that trust and confidence,” he added.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has developed a plan of action for manufacturers to protect both business and customers in a five-step guide.

FDF director general Melanie Leech said: “It’s clear from the interim findings published today that UK consumers have access to perhaps the safest food in the world. Professor Elliott’s recommendations provide industry with a solid platform from which to build a joint strategy with government and enforcement bodies to combat food fraud.”