Food crime cannot be prevented on the cheap

| September 9, 2014 | 0 Comments my last post I called on the UK Government to publish the final version of Professor Chris Elliot’s report on the implications of the 2013 horsemeat scandal for our food supply. According to newspaper reports, publication was to be postponed until at least the autumn, but to the surprise of many, the report appeared in full on 4 September. I am under no illusion that the prompt response had anything whatsoever to do with my blog post, but it was nonetheless very welcome.

The Elliot Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks – Final Report makes very interesting reading. It identifies weaknesses in the UK’s food supply chain where the criminally minded could be tempted to indulge in some adulteration, counterfeiting, or other variety of fraud, and shows how ill equipped we are to detect and prevent such crimes. Professor Elliot makes a series of excellent practical recommendations, which taken together would enable the UK to build what he refers to as a “national food crime prevention network.”

The recommendations are built around “eight pillars of food integrity” and cover supplier audits, information sharing and intelligence, improved analytical laboratory resources and the establishment of a specialist National Food Crime Unit with full police powers. The plans also mean an enhanced leadership role for the Food Standards Agency, although Professor Elliot stopped short of recommending that the Agency should take back the responsibility for food authenticity that it lost to the Department of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in 2010.

DEFRA has issued a response to the report, which also makes interesting reading. At first glance it appears to accept Professor Elliot’s recommendations and “the key principles of the report” and goes on to outline actions that are already in progress. However, as ever, the devil is in the detail, or in this case more in the lack of detail. Apparently the recommended Food Crime Unit is going to be set up within the Food Standards Agency and the Agency has already begun to recruit new staff with the necessary expertise to run it. Up to 50 new jobs could be created, but it is by no means clear how this will be funded. There have already been reports that the Agency is ‘restructuring’ to make more money available and it is possible that it will have to cut back on some of its other activities.

Similarly, the DEFRA response agrees with Professor Elliot that the existing network of Public Analysts and other testing laboratories needs to be strengthened and modernised. But there is no suggestion that any money will be made available to achieve this. Instead it talks about better cooperation, standardisation of methods and the creation of ‘Centres of Excellence’ within the existing network. Given the current parlous state of the cash-starved Public Analysts service, it is hard to see how a significant improvement can be achieved without more funding.

If the Elliot Review is to make any difference to the vulnerability of the UK food supply to crime, it is not enough just to agree with it. The recommendations must be implemented quickly and completely and with an adequate level of funding. Anything less is just window dressing.

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