Food Fraud: Guest Article

Food Standards Scotland calls for industry-wide support to fight food crime

By Ian McWatt

- Last updated on GMT

Food Standards Scotland says it operates a 'zero tolerance' food crime policy ©iStock/carlballou
Food Standards Scotland says it operates a 'zero tolerance' food crime policy ©iStock/carlballou

Related tags: Food crime, Food fraud

Ian McWatt, the director of operations at Food Standards Scotland, discusses the costs associated with food crime and stresses the need for cooperation throughout the industry to tackle it.

It is estimated that food crime costs the UK food and drink industry over £1bn each year - and yet there is very little public awareness about it.

Reputational risk

Food crime has many consequences, from the obvious risk to public health, through to defrauding the public and honest food businesses.

We need to be very clear that the vast majority of food businesses produce safe, high quality food, but should a food business produce food dishonestly, it could be harmful to the reputation of the sector.

The gross value added to the economy in Scotland is approximately £3.8bn, according to the Food and Drink Federation Scotland. We’re famous the world over for our produce and have built a strong reputation for quality and provenance. These are at risk of being severely compromised by the actions of a minority of individuals and businesses engaging in fraudulent activity.

In 2015, Food Standards Scotland launched the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit (SFCIU) to gather vital intelligence to target those involved in food-related criminal activities.

Food crime can be anything from the deliberate manipulation, substitution or mislabelling of food to instances of food fraud where cheaper goods and ingredients are marketed and sold as more expensive ones. It’s a serious threat to the excellent reputation of the Scottish food and drink sector and we know it can be hard for people to come forward. That’s why we’ve partnered with Crimestoppers to help the industry report any concerns of wrongdoing through a dedicated, free and totally confidential hotline number - 0800 028 7926 - and online web form.

Ultimately, consumers have the right to know where their food and drink comes from and that it is safe. As a nation, we are lucky to enjoy an internationally-renowned reputation for our food and drink boasting everything from supreme Scottish salmon and venison to the highest quality Scotch Whisky and gin. With ambitious plans to double the value of Scotland’s food and drink industry by 2030, it’s more important than ever for us to work collaboratively with cross-sector partners to tackle food fraud to protect the industry’s well-deserved reputation.

Report suspicious activity

FSS - Staff Images - April 2016 - Ian McWatt (1)
Ian McWatt stresses the risk food crime presents to the entire industry

Food producers, no matter who they are or where they work, have a responsibility to ensure their products are authentic – in other words, that they contain what it says on the label. However, industry also has the chance to maintain the integrity of Scottish food and drink by reporting suspicious activity.

Two recent examples highlight the importance of this. The director of Sea-Pac Ltd, a salmon processing company based in Aberdeen, recently pleaded guilty to a range of food law offences. This represented the culmination of a four-year investigation, which uncovered large-scale food fraud.

These sorts of activities threaten the excellent reputation of the Scottish food and drink sector. We at Food Standards Scotland will not tolerate abuse of the system and the work Aberdeen City Council did to bring about justice was vital. It is important to say that this type of fraudulent activity is not representative of the salmon industry in Scotland. The SFCIU has been set up to detect and investigate this sort of wholly unacceptable activity and we will continue to work to support local authorities throughout these types of investigations.

Ultimately, we act in our capacity as food industry ‘protectors’ to safeguard the public. The case involving Hebridean Sea Salt in 2017 brought the issue of food crime to the forefront of the public consciousness. Investigations discovered that over 80% of the salt found in Hebridean Sea Salt did not originate in the Hebrides, and was in fact imported table salt. Whilst this was not a food safety issue, this case represents the deception of consumers on a scale that is unacceptable.

Zero tolerance for food crime

We work across the aquaculture, meat, dairy and farming sectors, cross-industry support to help us tackle food crime continues to be crucially important for us. We work closely with Police Scotland, the 32 local authorities, the Scottish Government as well as numerous industry partners who, in turn support our work in reporting and tackling food crime. We are also the first organisation to sign a collaborative agreement with the Food Industry Intelligence Network (FIIN). This agreement will help us to work in partnership with the food industry to tackle food fraud and meet our strategic aims that food is safe, is what it says it is and ensure that responsible food businesses flourish.

We must continue to look to the future and reinforce our message that there is zero tolerance for food crime in Scotland. We are calling on industry partners and those who work within our thriving food and drink sector to raise concerns or report behaviour they feel may be fraudulent, unethical and dangerous. As our industry continues to grow, we must ask ourselves how we can all work together to uncover food crime.

Related topics: Food safety, Food Safety & Quality

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