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Headlines > Legislation

UK food safety agency in fraud crackdown

By Jane Byrne , 15-Apr-2009

A new food fraud division will support local authorities to take swift action to stop illegal activity as well as helping them uncover cases where the consumer has been misled, announced the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Speaking to FoodProductionDaily.com, an FSA spokesperson said that its new Food Fraud Advisory Unit builds on and takes over the work of the Illegal Meat Task Force (IMTF), which supported illegal meat investigations over five years.

“The new unit has a wider remit and addresses the need for a wider focus when tackling food fraud,” she said.

Consumer deception

The FSA defines food fraud as being committed when “food is deliberately placed on the market, for financial gain, with the intention of deceiving the consumer”.

This may take the form of selling products unfit for human consumption, such as those of unknown origin or which are past their sell-by-date; or misrepresenting food in some way, for example by substituting cheaper alternatives or making misleading statements about its source.

The consumer watchdog Which? claims that the fraudulent food market in the UK is estimated to be worth £7bn a year – accounting for around 10 per cent of the entire market.

However, the FSA spokesperson said this estimate was speculative due to the illicit nature of food fraud, which she said can only be recorded once detected, thus making it difficult to accurately determine the true extent of food fraud within the UK.

Detection methods

When asked whether the incidence of food and drink fraud has risen since the start of the credit crunch she said the agency was not aware of any worsening of counterfeit activity in the past few months and she claims that the many systems the agency has in place to detect fraud is helping to keep a lid on such activity.

“Our authenticity programme is one of the leaders in Europe in developing state-of-the-art scientific methods to detect food fraud and misdescription in a wide range of foods, from DNA to biochemical markers,” continued the spokesperson.

She added that the FSA’s national fraud database led to a large seizure of bottles of counterfeit vodka in the London borough of Haringey last year.

The FSA claims that local authorities, industry and consumers have a vital role to play in tackling food fraud and it said that anyone who is aware of known, or suspected, food or feed fraud should contact the agency by emailing foodfraud ‘at’ foodstandards.gsi.gov.uk or by telephoning its fraud hotline at 0044 020 7276 8527.

Fraud incidents

Recent incidents of enforcement by local authorities on the issue include the prosecution of the director the Rich Complements Ltd last year, after two lab samples showed two of the firm’s sandwich range did not contain cheese, but a non-dairy substitute called ‘cheese analogue’ which, costs about half of the wholesale price of real cheese.

In 2006, Essex Trading Standards successfully prosecuted two UK based rice importers, Surya Rice and Basmati Rice (UK), for supplying Basmati brands containing substantial amounts of non-Basmati grains. Both companies were fined about £9,000 each.

And in 2005, the UK newspaper The Observer reported an investigation which revealed that some producers were passing non-organic food off as organic, which led to a number of prosecutions.

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