Little chance of post-Brexit food fraud frenzy

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

'There are too many barriers for entry [into the food sector].' ©iStock/AndrePopov
'There are too many barriers for entry [into the food sector].' ©iStock/AndrePopov

Related tags European union

Criminals operating in the UK’s food chain are “home grown” and unlikely to be involved in organised crime, according to the head of the country’s food crime unit (FCU).

“I’m an organised crime denier,”​ Andy Morling said at an industry event held just before Christmas. “There are easier ways for organised criminals to make money. There are too many barriers for entry [into the food sector].”

Morling also played down concerns that Brexit could hamper the ability of regulators and police to tackle cross-border criminal activity. “I’m not losing any sleep over it at the moment,” ​he told the audience at December’s Footprint Forum.

However, the crime unit, set up in the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal, is struggling to convince manufacturers and the wider food industry to ‘blow the whistle’ when there is the suggestion of criminal activity.

'Trust me'

Morling, who has previously worked for the Serious Fraud Office, the Serious and Organised Crime Agency and the National Crime Agency, said that his nine months in the FCU job so far have taught him that food crime is “unlike anything I have ever experienced. It is young … some don’t perceive it as a ‘real crime’ … [and] engagement with industry continues to be produce challenges.”

Morling said a snap survey of industry executives at another event showed that fewer than half would report an incident. “The rest would just change supplier,”​ he explained. It was a big call for workers to make, he admitted. “We will pay [rewards] if I have my way,”​ he said. “It’s right that we should reward [people] for coming forward.”​ His message to industry was: “trust me”.

Indeed, the crime unit only as good as the intelligence it receives – something that was flagged in the UK’s 2013/14 Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks. “The willingness by industry to share sensitive information with a regulator will be required to deliver a national food crime prevention framework,”​ concluded professor Chris Elliott in his report for the UK Government.

Disorganised crime

Morling’s early assessment of food crime in the UK as “businesses gone bad rather than bad businesses from the beginning” ​puts him at odds with professor Elliott, who concluded that evidence from other European countries shows organised crime is a serious problem in the food sector and the UK is not immune.

ground beef minced meat iStock kiboka

The horsemeat scandal was “incredibly well organised”,​ professor Elliott noted recently during an inquiry by the UK’s House of Lords select committee on the European Union. “There is more and more evidence to show that some of the serious organised crime gangs across the world, from drug cartels in South America, the Mafia in Italy, are moving more and more into the food industry, because the benefits are there.”

Concerns have been mounting that Brexit could undermine efforts to tackle criminal activity in the European food supply chain. Currently, EU member state regulators including the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) share information and this occurs on an international basis. While this arrangement might continue on a renegotiated basis there are no guarantees.

Morling said he was “fairly confident”​ that access to intelligence units in EU member states will continue. He admitted that opportunities could arise from the UK’s divorce from the EU but he is “not losing any sleep over it at the moment”.

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