A SPECIALIST food crime unit should be set up in the UK in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, a Government-commissioned report has recommended.
Professor Chris Elliott said the UK has high standards of food safety but the scandal “clearly showed criminal activity in the global food chain” and due to very limited intelligence it is hard to gauge the scale of crime in the UK’s food supply network.
In the first part of his independent review into how the safety and authenticity of food in the UK can be protected, Prof Elliott said a new unit should be set up as a non-Home Office police force able to deal with “complex food crime perpetrated by highly organised and dangerous, potentially violent organised crime groups”.
He said he believed criminal networks saw the potential for “huge profits and low risks” and his report had found “a worrying lack of knowledge” regarding the extent of their operations.
He said: “I have been persuaded by the evidence I have collected that food crime already is or has the potential to become serious organised crime.”
The report, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Health (DH), says Government and industry should make urgent efforts to “fill the knowledge gap” of the extent of any criminal activity within the UK food supply network and “intelligence hubs” should be created to gather and analyse information about food crime.
There have been no successful prosecutions in the UK or Ireland to date in relation to the scandal.
Prof Elliott’s report calls for changes between the relationship of the FSA and Defra, including the Food Authenticity Programme, which takes the lead in supporting research into food authenticity testing, returning to the FSA.
The recommendations also say that all parties who operate and manage the food chain “must put consumers first over all other aims”, adding: “To this end, contamination and adulteration of food, along with making false claims relating to food products, must be made as difficult as possible to commit”.
He called for the FSA and the DH to launch a project to explore the feasibility of a shared public laboratory service for the food authenticity testing currently undertaken in local authority-owned labs.
And he said the auditing of food businesses by Government and industry, particularly those deemed to be high risk, “must be more focused on detecting fraud”, with traders and brokers subject to the same scrutiny.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson responded, saying: “The UK food industry already has robust procedures to ensure they deliver high quality food to consumers and food businesses have a legal duty to uphold the integrity of food they sell. It is rightly highly regarded across the world and we must not let anything undermine this or the confidence of consumers in the integrity of their food.
“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.”
The horsemeat scandal first began to unfold in January this year when it emerged that frozen burgers supplied to several supermarkets including Tesco contained horse DNA. Investigations found other beef products sold by retailers including lasagne and spaghetti bolognese were contaminated, while meals in schools and hospitals had to be withdrawn after it was found they contained horsemeat.