Food crime: the NFCU is on the case

Posted: 22 September 2020 | | No comments yet

In worrying times, Darren Davies, Head of the Food Standards Agency’s National Food Crime Unit, offers reassurance that food in the UK remains safe and legitimate.

food crime

If this year has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique set of challenges for all of those working in the food system. Protecting the integrity of the food supply chain has been one of the key priorities for the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and I am pleased to say that this has been maintained – even in the most difficult of circumstances.

While access to food has been a concern for the public during this pandemic, we have been clear that a lack of trust in the food they are buying should not add to their worries.

This trust was severely tested in 2013 when it was discovered that several meat products being sold in the UK and Ireland contained horse meat which was not mentioned on the label. The horse meat incident shocked the country as we questioned how this had been allowed to happen and wondered how long it had been going on for. The public was outraged – and for good reason – they, along with legitimate food businesses, had been the victims of a crime.

Following the horse meat incident, Professor Chris Elliott undertook a review of food crime in the UK and outlined a food crime prevention framework. One of the recommendations of the report was to create a new unit within the FSA that would lead on food crime. As a result, in 2015, the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) was formed.

Shortly after our inception, we worked with Food Standards Scotland’s Food Crime and Incidents Unit (SFCIU) to produce the first strategic assessment of food crime in the UK. A lot has changed since then, not least the EU exit and an increase in the prevalence of selling food online. Together with the SFCIU, we have revisited the assessment and updated it to reflect the new challenges and opportunities we are seeing in 2020. However, the fundamental assessment remains the same: the UK has some of the safest and most trusted food in the world and the vast majority of food businesses in this country operate legitimately and honestly. Nevertheless, we need to remain vigilant against a small minority of criminals and unscrupulous businesses whose activity risks undermining our trust in food.

The 2020 Food Crime Strategic Assessment, due to be published soon, has identified a number of parts of the industry, or types of food products, that could be vulnerable to food crime. This could be illegally harvested shellfish entering the food chain, or fraudsters imitating a legitimate business to acquire a food product and not paying for it at significant financial impact to food businesses, as well as serious risk to consumers.

Vulnerability can exist at any place along the route from farm through to fork, both in the UK or overseas. In general, food criminals generally try to do one of two things: either make a passable product appear of higher value than it is or enter unsuitable food or ingredients into the food chain and profit from selling them as fit for consumption.

Food fraud is not a victimless crime. If you have bought a product with a premium quality, you deserve to know that the characteristic you paid for is there. A legitimate food business should not have to worry about going bust because a criminal one is undercutting it. There can also be devastating consequences when corners are cut – replacing almond powder with cheaper peanut powder and not declaring it could result in a serious allergic reaction and even death.

Identifying these vulnerable areas does not mean a whole section of the food industry is criminal or complicit. Instead, it means that we need to work closely with legitimate businesses to identify potential weaknesses in the food chain and pursue those who are trying to exploit them. The more knowledge that we have about food crime methods, the better we will be able to combat them.

The NFCU works closely with local authorities, the police and other crime agencies to pursue those who seek to profit from food crime. In the last year, we have conducted many joint operations with key partners, including an investigation into animal by-products being used in kebab meat in the West Midlands, and the recovery of stolen meat acquired through fraud in the North West. We are also continuing to disrupt the supply to the harmful chemical DNP, which is sometimes dangerously advertised as a weight-loss aid and in recent years has  been linked to over 30 deaths in the UK.

We must continue to remain vigilant to the threat from food crime and the risk it poses to businesses and consumers. No single assessment can ever capture every risk to the UK’s food industry which is why we want to encourage food businesses to collaborate with us, to share their intelligence and expertise, and help us to tackle any unscrupulous parts of the industry. We encourage food businesses to get in touch and work with us to improve their understanding of, and test responses to, vulnerabilities to crime within their supply chain.  

Whatever the next few months have in store, whether you will be perfecting your baking recipes or ordering from your favourite takeaway, you can do so knowing that the NFCU and its partners are working to ensure we can all be confident that the food we are enjoying is safe and what it says it is.

Anyone with information about a suspected food crime can report it to the National Food Crime Unit at [email protected] or on 02072768787.

About the author

Darren Davies is head of the Food Standards Agency’s National Food Crime Unit. Prior to this, he was in law enforcement for more than three decades.