UK - The government must clamp down hard on food fraud and crime and put the needs of the consumer and food safety first.
These are the overriding messages from the interim report from Prof Chris Elliot in his independent review of Britain’s food system in the light of the horse meat fraud earlier this year.
“UK consumers have access to perhaps the safest food in the world and all those
involved in supplying food and for developing and enforcing legislation should be
commended for what has been achieved,” Prof Elliott, Professor of Food Safety and Director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast said in his report.
“However, our focus now urgently needs to turn to tackling food crime.”
He said that because there is very limited intelligence it is hard to gauge the scale of crime within the food supply chains and estimates of the extent of criminality in food provision vary widely.
“In the UK we don’t know the scope or extent of the problem,” he said.
Prof Elliott called for more research into the problem with more surveys and more data collection.
He said that there must be zero tolerance for food fraud, and minor dishonesties need to be discouraged and the response to major dishonesties has to be punitive.
He called on the government and the food industry to share the burden of cast in the research needed to clampdown on food fraud because the cost to the sector could be immense.
“The UK food and beverage market (including food drink and catering) in 2012 was estimated by Defra to be worth £188 billion, so the cost of criminal activity may be substantial,” he said in the report.
He added: “Food crime is an emerging issue for all of Europe and The European Commission has taken a proactive stance by establishing a new food fraud unit within DG SANCO.
“The recent award of substantial research funding via a Framework 7 project on ‘Food Integrity’ with the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) as co-ordinators will play a major role in the harmonisation of European efforts to combat food crime.”
Prof Elliott said there should be a systems approach to make it much more difficult for criminals to operate in food networks by introducing new measures to check, test and investigate any suspicious activity.
He said that ultimately those caught perpetrating criminal activity must be severely punished by the law to send a clear message to those thinking of conducting similar criminal activity not to operate in ‘our space’.
“In order to do this we need new and more rigorous measures of auditing and testing supply networks and a robust system of investigating and prosecuting wrong doers,” he said.
He said that there are already networks in place to help police the food sector with those involved with audit, inspection and enforcement having access to resilient, sustainable laboratory services that use standardised, validated methodologies.
He said that Industry and regulators must give weight to audit and assurance regimes, so as to allow credit where it is due; but also try to minimise duplication where possible.
Audits of food supplies by producers, storage facilities, processors and retailers are undertaken both routinely and randomly.
He said that government support for the integrity and assurance of food supply networks must be kept specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (SMART) and he added that there should be a better partnership working between Government departments and a more robust FSA, still independent but with greater connectivity to Ministers.
Prof Elliott also called for a dedicated Food Crime Unit, hosted within the FSA, to be established to develop the necessary expertise in order to undertake investigations in what may be serious organised crime
He concluded that when a serious incident occurs the necessary mechanisms have to be in place so that regulators and industry can deal with it effectively.
The report and its findings have been welcomed by the British farming sector.
NFU Deputy President Meurig Raymond said: “We are pleased that the Government is taking the horsemeat issue seriously in a bid to ensure that consumers can have 100 per cent confidence that the meat they buy is exactly what it is supposed to be – and when they want to back British, they can.
“This scandal has underlined the importance of a short, traceable supply chain. British farmers are rightly proud of their products and NFU research shows that British people would like to buy more food produced in this country.
“It is right that action is being taken to ensure that meat labelled as British is British and has all the high standards associated with British farming.
“Although we approve of plans to set up a new system of authenticity, we await with interest on details as to how that will be implemented.
“We would not want added costs passed on to our farmers, who have not been implicated in any way during this scandal.
“In the meantime, we would urge consumers to look out for the Red Tractor logo to be absolutely sure of where their food comes from and of the standards it has been produced to.”
British Retail Consortium Director General Helen Dickinson said: "The report is an important and thorough contribution to the review of supply chains. We are pleased Professor Elliott makes it clear UK supply chains are amongst the safest in the world and that he is addressing the specific issue of food crime, an issue that warrants serious attention. We absolutely share his focus on consumer confidence; it is at the heart of all retailers' businesses.
"Major retailers and the BRC have been addressing many of the issues raised in his report since the horsemeat incident, building on existing controls on safety to deal with issues of fraud. Retailers have reviewed and revised their supply chains, improved the way they audit their suppliers, targeted testing and worked with the BRC and industry partners to improve the exchange of intelligence.
"The BRC has reviewed its food certification scheme to account for issues raised in the incident. It already offers unannounced audits as well as a scheme covering distribution but will add to these a certified scheme for agents and brokers in the New Year. We look forward to working with Professor Elliott on the implementation of this new scheme and continued delivery of the storage and distribution standard.
"We know the importance of intelligence in tackling fraud and have consistently pushed the Government to improve the flow of information in Europe. We welcome the Professor's comments on ensuring information flows from industry whilst preserving commercial confidence and are examining the best mechanism for providing that to the FSA.
"We also welcome the Professor's comments on increasing the Government focus on food fraud. We certainly don't see it as a victimless crime and look forward to new proposals to target criminals.”