More of the ugly iceberg has surfaced

Posted: 30 March 2023 | | 1 comment

Professor Chris Elliott reflects on the unfurling food fraud scandal and make some suggestions for a more rigorous auditing process.

chris' corner

Reports in the media this week of large-scale fraud in the meat industry perpetrated by one or more companies will send more shock waves across the food industry and will cause substantial worry to some consumers that the meat they purchase from a wide range of outlets may be adulterated and dangerous.

It is the food safety angle that has particularly drawn my attention. The Horsemeat scandal was large in terms of its impact and number of companies that became embroiled, but at no stage was there any evidence of food safety risks. This is clearly not the case, with a Farmers Weekly investigation claiming rotten and highly contaminated meat is making its way into various supply chains.

It is clear that there is a large investigation underway by both the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) and law enforcement agencies. While there are many questions to be answered, I doubt they are worth asking currently – as it’s an active and on-going investigation and we will have to be patient until the time more information can be shared.

As with the Horsemeat scandal there was a lot of finger pointing in terms of who is to blame for yet another food scandal in the UK. Then and now I always start with the perpetrators of the fraud. I invented the term ‘food crime’ to try and make it as clear as possible that these individuals, groups of individuals, companies or group of companies are indeed criminals and their only motive is to make money illegally.

It’s also very important to think of the scale of the UK food industry. The value sits at more than £100 billion and of course like any other type of industry there will be criminals that try and exploit any weaknesses they identify.

Since Horsemeat, the NFCU and Food Industry Intelligence Network (fiin) have been formed and in my opinion, both are doing a good job, both individually and together. NFCU identified the potential criminal activity, set out to investigate it and informed fiin. The response of fiin was to inform their members immediately to gather any evidence to determine the fraud being perpetrated was more widespread. Testing for adulterated meat increased by 300 percent as a result. The fiin intelligence gathering was reported to the NFCU. I think in terms of reactivity, it is very hard to fault either organisation.  I will come to the proactive piece a little later.

Time to rethink audits?

The main deterrent for food companies, apart from simply maintaining integrity (which includes the vast majority of businesses), is audits and inspections. Ten years ago, I wrote about this aspect of protecting consumers and businesses and while some progress has been made, it remains an area of deep concern and indeed frustration to me.

Fraudsters are generally clever, devious and very good at covering their tracks. It is my belief that many audits conducted are not fit for purpose and are a huge and unnecessary cost to businesses – a cost ultimately passed onto consumers. A total rethink of how a smaller number of much more robust and targeted audits should be conducted is needed. There will no doubt be resistance to this, especially from the third-party audit industry, but now is the time to act.

I see massive opportunities to implement new training and skills for auditors. Ialso see massive opportunities for the introduction of new science and technology into the testing for food authenticity linked to the application of digital technologies. There are multiple data sources that can be captured and analysed which will show deviations from the norm.  I therefore also see a massive opportunity for the use of artificial intelligence to identify suspicious activities or at least companies who need to be targeted for additional scrutiny.

A system based on verifiable data provided by testing and suppliers could provide incredibly robust, real-time assurance that could augment traditional auditing systems to provide a significantly higher level of risk management for supply chains.

The NFCU and fiin came about by government and industry stepping up to the mark. I now call upon a similar partnership approach, a public – private partnership, to take the next vital steps to protect consumers and the UK food industry.

While this perhaps might not be welcome by some, I personally will be very happy to be part of the next phase of fighting food crime in the UK.

One response to “More of the ugly iceberg has surfaced”

  1. Mike Steel says:

    Spot on, Chris. For the reasons you state, it’s not the occurrence itself that’s rare but the fact it’s come to light.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.