Three actions to stop more food fraud scandals
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Posted: 22 March 2023 | Professor Chris Elliott | 1 comment
Professor Chris Elliott reflects on the most recent food fraud case to sweep the food and beverage industry, and calls for clear actions points to prevent anymore.
When the news that the National Food crime Unit was undertaking a major investigation into meat fraud in the UK, it was probably an unpleasant surprise. Not for me. It wasn’t that I had inside information about the case, but rather I had predicted that there would be a food fraud scandal at some point this year. This was due to a number of important factors; the economic crisis, the pressure on food companies to keep costs low, the lack of inspections and testing on food premises due to government funding cuts and the lack of inspections on imports due to Brexit. I have also personally provided information to the FSA about food imports coming into the UK that do not meet regulatory requirements, yet months later it is still happening.
The one positive factor is of course that we have the National Food Crime Unit investigating criminal activity in our food system and it was their reported investigation that triggered the intense media interest.
Forget the what, focus on the why
I’m not going to dwell on the details of the current investigation and where it might end up. Least to say I’m picking up smoke signals that more revelations are yet to come. Rather, I want to concentrate on why I have been worried about the vulnerability of small to medium size businesses (SMEs) to food fraud for some time and what I think needs to be done to reduce the potential of them to become embroiled in scandals.
I’ve previously talked and written about the UK operating a dual food system. On one side, there are large companies with good technical teams and budget for sampling and testing and virtually all members of the Food Industry Intelligence Network (FIIN). They are not immune from fraud challenges but have put a large number of preventative measures in place. They need to be congratulated for this.
Compare this with SMEs, which have very limited technical resources and little or no testing programmes in place. With local authority sampling and inspections cut to the bone, this leaves a huge hole in defending the massive numbers of food business operators in the UK from criminal penetration. Many businesses will fall back on trusted business relationships and standard audits to protect themselves. I have always said: trust is wonderful but always needs some form of verification.
Are audits failing?
Those that think the standard audits that are commonplace in the UK food sector will give this verification are unfortunately rather delusional. They are simply not fit for purpose, if one of their purposes is to detect fraudulent activity. Many audits remain as ‘announced’ and give fraudsters plenty of time to cover their trails of wrongdoing. I hear stories about ‘secret storage facilities’ and lorry loads of dodgy produce moving our of factories before audits begin, only to return once they are over.
Ten years ago, in the Elliott Review, I highlighted the major fault in audits. Large companies responded by switching to unannounced audits, which included serious integrity elements. I recall these were described as the ‘audits from hell’ and turned up a lot of questionable practices. My first call for action is that the entire UK food auditing system switches to fewer, but much more rigorous unannounced integrity based inspections.
More action required
My second call for action is for FIIN to step up to the mark as they have done so well previously to protect businesses and consumers from fraud. They have access to incredible data, intelligence and training material. It’s time that the SME sector gets access to this. I know FIIN are up for this and will respond accordingly.
But industry cannot deal with the reduction in sampling and testing alone. My third call for action is for government to acknowledge the vulnerability to fraud in the SME sector and respond by investing in fit for purpose sampling and testing programmes.
So my question to all stakeholders: is there a willingness to take these three steps forward? Or will we sit back and wait for another brace of bad news and scandal to hit the UK food industry?
Food Fraud, Food Safety, Regulation & Legislation, Supply chain
Nice article. I would like a catch up on Zoom when you are free