Science & Environment

Ministers back Food Crime Unit recommendation

Interpol officer
Image caption Criminal gangs are shifting from drug trafficking and robbery elements into food crime

Britain is to get a Food Crime Unit to fight the trade in fraudulent foods.

The special force is a response to last year's horsemeat scandal, which saw contaminated beef products reaching supermarket shelves across Europe.

The FCU is the major recommendation in a report commissioned from food security expert Chris Elliott.

The Queen's University Belfast professor has made a number of suggestions to ensure consumers have absolute confidence when buying food.

These include:

  • better intelligence gathering and sharing of information to make it difficult for criminals to operate;
  • new, unannounced audit checks by the food industry to protect businesses and their customers;
  • the development of a whistleblowing system that would better facilitate the reporting of food crime;
  • improved laboratory testing capacity, with a standardised approach for the testing of a food's authenticity; and
  • the encouragement of a culture within the food industry that questions the source of its supply chain.

Prof Elliott said British consumers had one of the safest food systems in the world, but he believed his suggestions would take the situation to a new level.

"I believe the creation of the national food crime prevention framework will ensure measures are put in place to further help protect consumers from any food fraud incidents in the future," he added.

Government minsters said all his ideas would be accepted.

Environment Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, told BBC News: "We have started implementing some of the recommendations of his report, in terms of information sharing, food companies being more transparent with each other, and consumers looking for shorter supply chains. For example, there has been a 10% rise in the sale of British Beef in supermarkets."

The new unit will comprise a specialist team within the Food Standards Agency.

Law enforcement agencies believe food crime is becoming a major problem.

International gangs are said to be diversifying elements of their operations from drug trafficking and armed robbery into fraudulent foods.

Michael Ellis, assistant director of Interpol, told BBC News: "This has changed the scope of investigations. Criminals have realised that they can make the same amount of money by dealing with counterfeit food. Invariably the sentences are much lighter.

"In my experience, the patterns used by criminals involved in counterfeiting are very similar to those used in the dealing of drugs. They operate front companies, they employ front bank accounts, they will have false declarations for the movement of their goods, they will mis-declare their shipments."

Operation Opson III in December 2013 and January 2014 involved coordinated raids across 33 countries in the Americas, Asia and Europe.

More than 131,000 litres of oil and vinegar, 20 tonnes of spices and condiments, nearly 430,000 litres of counterfeit drink and 45 tonnes of dairy products were seized. In addition, 96 people were arrested.

Image caption China's melamine in milk scandal illustrated the dangers of food crime

Food crime can have fatal consequences. In China in 2008, an industrial chemical, melamine, was added to increase the protein content of baby milk. Six babies died of severe kidney damage as a result.

In the Czech Republic in 2012, more than 40 people were killed by vodka and rum that had been laced with methanol.

Mr Ellis said: "Counterfeiting impacts on everyone. The criminals have no care at all for the hygiene or bacterial content in the end product. They just want the brand name in order to get their money."

In the UK, the system to ensure the safety of the food chain is complicated. Different elements are dealt with by different departments.

For example, food labelling is dealt with by the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health, Defra, and also Trading Standards officers who are employed by local authorities. There are also Environmental Health Officers who deal with complaints about food quality, hygiene and safety issues.

Testing labs

Novel technology created in a laboratory could help in the fight against the food fraudsters.

Pulsar, developed by Oxford Instruments in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, can identify meat in a matter of seconds rather than days.

Rather than isolating DNA, it looks at the so-called "fat fingerprint": each animal has a different amount of fat in its meat. However, the machine cannot yet identify the different meats in processed foods, so could only be used to screen meat before it gets into the factory.

Responsibility for checking food sellers, restaurants or processing plants, is principally down to Trading Standards officers. However, according to the Trading Standards Institute, by 2016 most of the front-line food inspection teams will have been cut by 40%.

In Worcestershire, for example, reports suggest there may just be six Trading Standards officers for the whole of the county next year as opposed to 25 in 2013/14. There has also been a cut in the number of public analyst laboratories, which is where food samples are sent to be tested.

According to Food Standards Agency statistics, councils including Brent, Portsmouth, Swindon and Blackburn, who have responsibility for food standards, submitted no samples in 2012-13.

Rebecca Kaya, from Buckinghamshire Trading Standards, explained: "We have about 20 officers left in Buckinghamshire and we have got to cover the entire county so that's actually quite a long distance. It's a lot of area to cover, a lot of businesses, we've got in Bucks around 2,500 farms, and all the businesses associated with selling food and retailing meat."

They are no longer able to routinely visit premises. "We are somewhat diminished, but what we are finding is new ways of working, much more intelligence led ways of working, using the slightly more limited resources that we have got now," she added.

The consumer organisation Which? recently tested 60 lamb takeaways and found that 24 of them contained other meats such as beef or chicken. The meat in five samples couldn't be identified at all.

The Food Standards Agency response has been to order 300 samples to be taken from restaurants across the country.

"The Food Standards Agency has been given an additional 2 million pounds for sample testing. Since the horsemeat issue we have seen 55 thousand tests being carried out on horsemeat products, and no horsemeat has been found in those. But we can't be complacent, and that's why we are setting up the Food Crime Unit," Elizabeth Truss said.

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