Addressing food crime

Posted: 21 October 2019 | | No comments yet

In 2015, the National Food Crime Unit was launched in the UK. New Food Editor, Bethan Grylls, spoke to head of the unit, Darren Davies, to learn more about the organisation and how it is addressing food crime.

Food crime

Following the 2013 horsemeat scandal, Chris Elliott, Professor of Food Safety and Founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast, was commissioned to lead a review into the quality and integrity of the UK’s food supply networks.

In this review, he recommended several ways to improve food safety and the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) was established in 2015 as a result.

The NFCU is a division of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and provides national leadership on food crime. Its main objectives are:

  • To improve the understanding of the food crime threat at a strategic level
  • To identify specific instances of dishonesty within food supply chains and to work with partners to address it.

There are seven types of food crime, Darren Davies, Head of the NFCU, told New Food. These are theft, unlawful processing, waste diversion, adulteration, substitution, misrepresentation and documentation fraud.

“The addition of this unit to the FSA is fairly recent,” Davies added. “Initially, its function was intelligence only, but since last June it has evolved to have investigatory capabilities.”

In terms of how the unit works, Davies said there are various routes through which to detect a crime. “We set up a confidential reporting line,” he said, “so sometimes it comes from calls from the public; other times it might be industry partners or law enforcement saying they have unearthed something; and then, of course, via our own intelligence.” He added that as the role of the NFCU has grown, the unit has been “liaising with the industry on a much bigger scale”, noting that it has also adopted responsibility for “awareness raising, outreach and prevention activity”.

Moreover, the unit creates a regular bulletin, which highlights the main drivers of fraudulent movement and shares these insights with the industry. Besides this, however, he explained that the most effective way a food company can protect itself is by knowing its supply chain.

Davies joined the NFCU in January 2019 and, although is modest not to take the credit for the unit’s achievements, did highlight some changes that have happened since he came on board. “The way in which we work with local authorities is now much clearer. We have a memorandum of understanding with the Food Industry Intelligence Network (FIIN) about sharing data, so we have a better comprehension of trends. We have also strengthened our working relationship with the Association of Chief Trading Standards Officers and have secured an agreement with the National Police Chief Council so that we can have access to more hard-edge law enforcement activities.”

However, Davies admitted that collaborating with the industry is a challenge. The NFCU wants retailers and manufacturers to feel comfortable enough to report concerns, he told New Food. Everyone wants to protect the public; but equally, if a food business operator has been defrauded, they will be concerned that if they report the crime, they will go out of business, he explained. “They need to have trust in us that we won’t do something that unwittingly damages their business.”

According to Davies, the biggest challenge has actually been “getting up and running as a new function”. He pointed to the importance of devising a longer-term strategy, getting the right people, making sure they are trained and equipped as best they can be.

“We are now looking at food crime more and more and I think we will start to see more and more problems emerging. That does not necessarily mean crime is rising; just that we have a better understanding of the problem,” he continued. “I would be happy to be out of a job if we could stop food crime altogether, but that is probably unrealistic. People will always find ways to cheat.” 

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.