special edition: food fraud

‘We’ve come a long way but more to be done’, says head of food crime unit

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: Istock/levanus
Picture: Istock/levanus

Related tags Police

Intelligence about food criminals is in short supply and crimes are often undetected or unreported, according to the first assessment of its type in the UK.

Food crime erodes confidence and disempowers consumers, leading to financial losses, negative economic impact and poses a threat to jobs and exports, said the analysis.

Methods and opportunity include falsified or inaccurate documentation, redirecting waste products and re-dating stock, internet sales and food brokers.

The Food Crime Annual Strategic Assessment​ (FCASA), by the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) on behalf of the FSA and Food Standards Scotland, examined the scale and nature of food crime threat.

NFCU was created in 2014 and The Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit (SFCIU) in 2015.

The initial assessment looks at what current intelligence and reporting can reveal about food crime and highlights what is not known and why. It covers from 1 August 2014 to 31 July 2015.

Sharing intelligence

Andy Morling, head of the NFCU, said it is vital for the industry, law enforcement agencies and regulators to work together to combat the threat of food crime.

“That collaboration is happening. In our first year, the NFCU has worked in partnership with local authorities, police forces, other agencies across government, in the UK and abroad, to share intelligence and help take action where a threat has been identified,” ​he said.

“This is the first time we have had a law enforcement capability focused exclusively on food related crime. Working in partnership in this way ensures other agencies with a role to play in tackling food crime are not working in isolation.”

Food-related criminality has a relatively low status for police and other law enforcement and regulatory bodies in comparison to other priorities and the creation of the units comes when those within the public sector are being asked to reduce their spending.

Morling said it has come a long way in the first year but the assessment makes clear that there is much more to be done. 

“For many reasons unique to this form of crime, intelligence about food criminals is in short supply. Whilst we are working hard to gather information, we are calling on those working in the food industry to report suspicions to the NFCU to help fill these gaps."

Tackling food crime and commodity focus

Sampling programmes to detect issues provides some assurances, but cannot be comprehensive given the sheer scale required to monitor all foods manufactured, sold and imported. Focused sampling can bring greater understanding of issues and vulnerabilities already recognised, but has less utility in detecting the unknown threat.

Consumer victim reporting was negligible during the reporting period which highlights the difficulties they face in identifying themselves as victims.

Information sharing with industry is in its early stages but there are at least three separate initiatives to develop so-called ‘safe spaces’ where businesses can share testing data and other suspicions amongst themselves in an anonymised form.

“Our assessment suggests that organised crime groups haven’t made substantial in-roads into UK food and drink in the way they have in other countries,” ​according to the report.

“Food supply can, however, provide a vehicle for other criminal activities. A small number of food businesses are believed to have links to organised crime groups whose main activity isn’t in itself food crime.

“As a cash-rich sector, food service can provide opportunities to launder the proceeds of other criminality while other sectors can offer a legitimate front to activities such as smuggling of contraband.”

In terms of commodity, opportunities for dishonesty exist at various stages of the red meat supply chain, fraud in eggs is an area of heightened vulnerability, there are limited concerns of criminality in dairy, spirits are judged to be a substantial area of concern, olive oil is a moderate area of concern and the risks caused by misdeclaration of produce coming into the UK has been raised as an area which requires future focus.

Substitution affecting nut and seed powders is judged to be a prominent area of concern, based on the severe potential health impact for consumers with allergies.

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