14/07/2016 | John Brennan

Food fraud: Can we really trust the food on our plates?

food fraud

14/07/2016 | John Brennan

Food fraud: Can we really trust the food on our plates?

Cast your mind back to the major news events of 2013, and one headline stands out above all others; the horsemeat scandal. The revelation that horsemeat had crept into everyday products in major supermarkets across Europe sent shockwaves across the food industry and raised the question – can we really trust the food on our plates?

Three years on, its impact is still very much at the forefront of the Food Safety sector. After weeks of bad press, the government launched an independent enquiry, looking at how exactly horsemeat found its way into frozen beef burgers and ready meals. The conclusions were scathing, and revealed that with so few prosecutions relating to acts of food crime there was a huge incentive for criminals to profit from such illegality.

In short, the crime revealed for the first time the severity of the problem facing Britain’s food industry. Following this, two major new food crime units have been established to help tackle food-related criminality in the UK, and offer greater protection for consumers unsure of the broad scope of food fraud.

But how exactly do the UK’s newly established food fraud units combat food criminality, and have they been successful in reducing instances of food crime? This begs the question, should really trust the food we eat?

The UK’s Crack Food Crime Units

Until the discovery of horsemeat in a number of processed beef products, the magnitude of food criminality was a relatively unknown entity in the UK. This was due to a lack of investigation into cases of potential food fraud, as well as poor communication between different bodies within the Food Safety industry.

Two units were established to address the issue of food criminality; the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) and the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit (SFCIU). Both of these governmental bodies were spawned in the wake of an enquiry, in which investigators prompted the UK government to make substantial steps to better safeguard the UK’s food industry against future cases of food fraud.

Currently, both units are focussing their efforts on ensuring that the right mechanisms, resources, relationships and capabilities are in place to identify and prevent serious crimes within the industry. This is being done via close collaboration between the units themselves, and the Local Authorities whose job it is to manage and ultimately thwart food criminality within their regional constituency.

But Is It Enough?

The UK’s food and drink industry is worth in excess of £200 billion, and accounts for 11% of the country’s GDP. This makes it a lucrative target for criminals, and despite the best efforts of the FSA’S National Food Crime Unit, the industry remains incredibly vulnerable to food fraud at all levels.

From random acts of dishonesty surrounding the content of food, to premeditated fraud on a large scale carried out by organised crime groups, threats to the UK’s Food Safety take many forms, making it incredibly difficult to monitor and police.

According to a recent report by the FSA, criminal gangs have made “substantial in-roads” into the UK’s food and drink industry, and more so than most other countries within Europe. This makes the job of the UK’s food crime units more difficult, as they strive to unravel the complex criminal networks. Couple this with the fact that consumers are often unaware of sub-standard food, and therefore seldom report food fraud offences, the task of the NFCU and SFCIU becomes nigh on impossible.

Historically, Britain’s food crime regulators relied on the public to plug gaps in their knowledge of food criminality. Now however, food crime units are better equipped to track cases of food fraud by working closely with Local Authorities and food businesses. This has subsequently had a knock-on effect in reducing the number of instances of supermarkets covering up cases of food crime through fear of it damaging their reputation.

So, are the government’s new food crime units enough? It’s too early to say for sure. Whilst the creation of dedicated food crime units in the UK is a step in the right direction, the powers of these crime prevention bodies are yet to have a tangible impact on the most serious instances of criminality.

However, that’s not to say consumers are as vulnerable to food crime as they were three years ago. If the horsemeat scandal taught us one thing, it’s that supply chains must be more closely monitored to prevent fraudulent products from entering the market — something major supermarkets have been doing in earnest since 2013. Businesses like Tesco, who were embroiled heavily in the news, now map out their entire supply chain to discern the risks of food fraud, making it easier for them to select products from suppliers they can trust.

This intervention on behalf of the UK’s major supermarkets is having a positive impact on lowering cases of food fraud, and ultimately helping food crime units concentrate on safeguarding smaller businesses against the potential impact of food criminality.

In the coming years, it’s hoped the NFCU and SFCIU will continue to work alongside Local Authorities and retailers to tackle the most serious incidences of food fraud. Collaboration of this scale will give the UK the best chance of avoiding the financial pitfalls of food-related criminality, and more importantly, safeguard consumers against the negative impact of food fraud.

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