Food Crime Unit must move faster - incoming FSA chair

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Hancock: Building relationships with organisations like Public Health England is absolutely essential. Picture: Istock/AndreyPopov
Hancock: Building relationships with organisations like Public Health England is absolutely essential. Picture: Istock/AndreyPopov

Related tags Food standards agency Food safety Uk food standards agency

The incoming UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) chair has said she is ‘surprised’ the Food Crime Unit (FCU) is not moving faster and it reflects the need to inject a bit more agility and pace into the agency.

Heather Hancock, deputy chair of the FSA, will take over from 1 April, replacing Tim Bennett.

“I am surprised that we are not moving faster on the Food Crime Unit. It is a bit symptomatic of the need to inject a bit more agility and pace into the agency,” ​she said.

“Whether that requires more resources to the agency or to others we are working with, I could not possibly say at the moment, but it will require, I am sure, some reallocation of resources.

“That has to be alongside the industry playing its part. I know that the industry, while making a commitment towards intelligence sharing, has not got very far with that yet. All these things have to move forward in tandem, but it needs to pick up pace.”

The FCU was set up to deal with food fraud and food crime as part of recommendations in Professor Chris Elliott's review​, after the horsemeat scandal in 2013. The unit is headed by Andy Morling.

Hancock said the FCU also needs to speed up industry participation and it does not currently have the ‘full suite of powers it would need’ to prosecute.

“It could do it only in conjunction with other authorities,” ​she said.

“Some of the moves that have been made with the Sentencing Council to increase deterrents may or may not go far enough. It seems to have taken the best part of two years to get those sentencing deterrents enhanced to a point at which the public might think, “At least that looks like it is causing some pain. It’s an appropriate level of punishment.”

“I do not think that food crime is taken seriously enough by the criminal justice authorities in this country.”

She made the comments at a pre-appointment hearing by the parliamentary Health Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

Deluding themselves

Anybody who said food safety risks are entirely avoidable would be deluding themselves, said Hancock.

“I still think that anybody who sits here and tells you that they can avoid all food safety risk is deluding themselves, but is it avoidable risk? I hope that we will have made a material difference on avoidable risk. There will still be risk that is unforeseen - that comes from left field and that nobody was on.”

When I went for the interview, I spoke to three industry chief executives on the producer, retailer and wholesaler side, one in each, about their experience of the Food Standards Agency and I was very surprised, in the light of horsemeat—one of those chief executives had been very closely involved in his company with the horsemeat issue—that not one of them reported on a direct conversation with the Food Standards Agency. That, to me, suggests that there is a lot to do on relationships​ - Heather Hancock

Hancock said it is inevitable that dealing with food safety issues is going to be reactive to some extent.

“I understand that most of the incidents that the agency deals with are notified to it. But how is the agency dealing with that immediate and ongoing challenge alongside dealing with the perpetual motion of the food system it operates in, with the impacts of climate change on food security, the kind of food we eat and risks such as new pathogens, for example?

“How is it impacting on technological change in the food sector? How is it impacting on perhaps different microbial or other kinds of foodborne disease challenges? Those are the three areas, at board level, where there are big strategic questions to answer.”

Food safety cannot be a competitive differentiator

Particular retailers comprehensively cover environment and sustainability performance but ‘not a peep’ about food safety, said Hancock.

“Why not? I do not know why not, but I think that there could be two reasons. Investors are not bothered, therefore it is not a board issue and the level of scrutiny that there needs to be is not happening, or they do not think that it impacts sufficiently on their consumers’ loyalty, trust, belief and willingness to buy.

“Both of those are things the Food Standards Agency can do something about. Both could drive a fundamentally different way in which the industry takes on its responsibility for food being safe. It is its responsibility.

“The agency can target its resources much more effectively on the rogues, the big risks, the unknowns, the horizon scanning, the smarter ways of working and keeping up to speed with the industry.

“Today is too late in this industry; we are in perpetual motion with it. Food safety is table stakes. It is not even a nice to have; it is absolutely essential. It cannot be a competitive differentiator.”

Hancock said the agency is looking at a 7% real-terms decrease in its Westminster budget and the local authority funding issue is of deep concern.

“The more difficult question for us is how we balance the need for that short-term budget management, which might be about further incremental reductions in staffing…or whether we can do a bit more partnership work with somebody, with the need to invest in more radical change - in what we do as a regulator, in the kinds of tools that we seek to develop and use and in the way that industry contributes towards the cost of regulation.” ​   

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