LONDON – An interim independent review of the United Kingdom’s food supply chain, regulatory and enforcement structure has concluded that industry, government and public enforcement agencies must give food safety and food crime prevention absolute priority over other objectives. Specifically, the report recommends a zero tolerance approach to food crime and a shared investment between government and industry in intelligence gathering to deter such crimes.

“In sectors where margins are tight and the potential for fraud is high, even minor dishonesties must be discouraged and the response to major dishonesties deliberately punitive,” the report said.
Authored by Prof. Chris Elliott, a professor of food safety and director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s Univ. Belfast, the report was developed at the request of the Department of Environmental and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) following the incidences of products marketed as 100 percent beef but contained horsemeat were discovered in commerce throughout the UK and Europe.

Elliott said in the report, “Food crime is a global problem and not one which impacts on the UK alone. 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.

“Limited intelligence has been collected and it is not possible to gauge whether we are dealing mainly with systematic criminality perpetrated by individuals and groups operating exclusively in the food chain, or whether organized criminal networks (i.e. those already established in activities such as trafficking drugs, cigarettes, fuel, firearms or humans) have moved into food crime.

“Conventional police wisdom suggests that there is no crossover but intelligence related to food-crime has never been collected systematically. I regard this as an unknown that requires urgent attention because of the ease with which money can be made from food fraud. In order to deal with the problem we must know the extent of the problem.”

Elliott said various explanations have been given for the recent rise in food crime: austerity; more criminals moving into the food arena; globalization in supply chains multiplying the information needed for assurance and creating more opportunities for unscrupulous behavior; increased diversity in consumer tastes; improved audit and testing information revealing incidence.

“All these are relevant, but there are other reasons,” he wrote. “The effectiveness of prevention measures will only improve if control systems and sanctions are strengthened.”

Much of the report focuses on intelligence gathering and one significant challenge addressed is communication between industry and government agencies. Elliott alluded to the fact that industry members he talked with were concerned about providing information to public agencies if anonymity could not be guaranteed.

The professor’s recommendation was for the development of an independent agency that may act as a go-between for industry and regulatory agencies.

“I suggest that this industry focused information gathering facility needs to be appointed by its contributors in such a way that it can rely on legal privilege in receiving information and is trusted — again through legal privilege — to protect market sensitive disclosures from being shared with competitors,” he wrote. “Giving information to this industry service should be free, but the costs associated with the running of the service should be paid for by subscription from those who want to share in the intelligence it produces.

“The service must share intelligence with the FSA (Food Standards Agency) as a protected disclosure unless there is clear evidence that suggests that the public health would be best and most immediately served by immediate full and open public disclosure. It should be as open as possible about its activities; perhaps through the mechanism of an annual, or more regular, public report.”

He also recommended the creation of a “national food economic intelligence hub” that can study trends in commodities, commodities futures trading and differential pricing across commodities with the potential for adulteration.

“This intelligence hub should analyze information from multiple sources, including international evidence, information from testing and sampling programs and consider whether these offer new opportunities for criminal profits,” Elliott said. “Through this hub, the FSA needs to develop its links with the research sector to produce and share ‘horizon scanning’ analyses of the commodities or markets considered at most risk from crime due to trade route complexity (e.g. Spanish olive oil bottled in Italy), commodities price fluctuations (e.g. cocoa), crop failures (e.g. wheat), fishing restrictions, the development of premium markets through labelling (e.g. Aberdeen Angus burgers), and criminal ingenuity (e.g. melamine in milk).”

He added that a standardized testing regimen for food fraud must be developed and that a testing network be established for the generation of rapid results.

“My recommendations in this section focus on two areas: first ensuring that all food authenticity testing follows standardized procedures, using recognized, validated methodologies, and, secondly, creating a robust, sustainable public sector laboratory system that can be considered to be a national asset,” he wrote.

To view the full report, please follow this link: Interim Report. A final report will be published in the spring.