UK food industry ‘vulnerable’ to criminal infiltration

Originally published in The Financial Times

In an interim report into the horsemeat scandal, Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “A food supply system which is much more difficult for criminals to operate in is urgently required.”

He called for measures to prevent food crime, including the establishment of a specialist ‘food crime unit’ to prevent fraud through increased intelligence gathering, testing and better co-ordination between government departments.

Professor Elliott said his review had identified “a worrying lack of knowledge regarding the extent to which we are dealing with criminals infiltrating the food industry. I believe criminal networks have begun to see the potential for huge profits and low risks in this area. The food industry and thus consumers are currently vulnerable.” He also criticised instances of “casual dishonesty” in the meat trade.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, said Prof Elliott “rightly identifies problems such as the evisceration of food law enforcement”, but added that the report “stops short of taking on the ruthless meat and dairy machine controlled by retailers”.

Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of Sustain, which campaigns for better food and farming, welcomed the report’s 48 proposals, but said that organisations such as a food crime unit would be “pointless without the financial resources to enforce existing legislation, as inspectors and auditors are stretched to breaking point”.

The government commissioned Prof Elliott to examine the integrity of Britain’s food supply network after the discovery in January that horsemeat was being sold as beef in frozen burgers and lasagnes in the UK and Ireland.

The horsemeat scandal exposed a bewilderingly lengthy and complex food supply chain across Europe, during which horsemeat had been fraudulently mislabelled as beef.

In October, the National Audit Office cited the case of a pizza sold in Ireland made out of 35 ingredients that had passed through 60 countries on five different continents.

It said in its report into food safety that regulators had struggled to keep up with the complexity of the supply chain and called for more tests and food monitoring.

Owen Paterson, environment secretary, said some measures had already been introduced, adding: “We will continue to work closely with the food industry, enforcement agencies and across local and central government to improve intelligence on food fraud and our response to it.”

Prof Elliott’s final report with more detailed recommendations will be published in the spring.

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