Are UK consumers at risk from complex food frauds perpetrated by highly organised criminal networks? Professor Chris Elliot of Queens University Belfast certainly thinks they are, and is recommending urgent action to combat the threat.
Professor Elliot is the author of an interim report commissioned by the British government in response to the horsemeat scandal that rocked the food industry back in January this year. Actually, nobody really knows how much adulteration and other types of food crime go on in our increasingly complex and convoluted food supply chains. But Professor Elliot points out that this is largely because neither government nor industry has ever made much effort to find out. He believes that inadequate enforcement of food regulations is an open invitation for criminals to exploit potential opportunities for fraud and points out that an industry worth £188bn last year in the UK alone could be concealing a lot of criminal activity. For instance, although the adulteration of beef with horsemeat was detected, those ultimately responsible have yet to be identified, despite extensive investigations.
The problem is not restricted to the UK alone. Horsemeat was found in beef products in a number of European countries and the increasingly global nature of the food industry is part of the reason why opportunities for sophisticated and complex frauds exist. The European Commission has already set up a dedicated food fraud unit and Professor Elliot wants the UK to have a Food Crime Unit that can investigate frauds more effectively. The fear is that without better intelligence gathering and more aggressive enforcement of the regulations, organised crime will see the food industry as an easy opportunity to make a lot of money with little risk of detection.
There is little concrete evidence of criminal gangs targeting food supply chains, but there is enormous potential for fraud and that seems to be Professor Elliot’s real concern. The evidence isn’t there because we haven’t been looking for it. More intelligence gathering, food testing and unannounced inspections of food premises might uncover endemic criminal activity that has gone undetected, perhaps for years. The report is something of a call to arms, not just for governments, but for industry too. As Professor Elliot says, the UK has some of the best food safety systems in the world, but does relatively little to combat food crime and should do more. But in my view food safety and food crime are inextricably linked. If unidentified materials are entering the food chain illegally and being passed off as something they are not, how can we be sure they don’t contain unexpected hazards? Perhaps the way forward is to use the same tried and trusted techniques the industry uses to manage food safety in the fight against food crime. How about HACCP – Hazard Analysis Criminal Control Point?