food crime

The FSA hopes to head off concerns over a conflict between its role as a consumer advocate and criminal investigator by publishing new guidance on how its National Food Crime Unit gathers evidence from the food sector.

In response to concerns - outlined in the NFCU’s first annual review in March - over the lack of intelligence sharing between industry and the authorities, and a continued reluctance by many to engage with the unit, FSA head of food crime Andy Morling said the new guidelines would help build trust and set out what informants could expect when they shared food crime suspicions.

Commenting in an update paper on the unit’s progress, which will be presented to the FSA board next week, Morling said “multiple sources” within the food industry had indicated the perceived tension between the FSA’s role as regulator and consumer advocate within government and the NFCU’s role as criminal investigator was a “significant barrier” to intelligence sharing.

“The main concern was that the agency’s culture of openness and transparency might lead to the release of commercially sensitive information shared by [industry informants] into the public domain,” he added.

The guidance would be published during the summer, he said, and followed an admission by the unit in March that “information-sharing with industry is in its early stages.”

Companies did not yet always understand what kind of information would be useful to the NFCU, Morling told The Grocer earlier this year, and they did not always feel confident sensitive information would be protected. “We still have a job to do in educating industry and explaining what we’re looking for and what we’ll do with the information,” he noted.

As a result of these difficulties, it could take from three to five years to fully develop an understanding of the criminal threat of food crime and the NFCU’s ability to respond to it,” he added.


The FSA paper also outlined the unit’s capabilities since launch, and in a nod to the current climate of austerity revealed it had accumulated running costs up to March 2016 of £579,000, with estimated costs for the 2016/17 financial year put at £1.2m.

The unit was now close to its current target complement of 20 full-time staff, and had taken a prominent role investigating the deaths of at least six young people linked to the consumption of dinitrophenol as a dietary supplement last year, the paper added.

It also led the UK’s response to Operation Opson: the long-running Interpol and Europol initiative to tackle counterfeit and substandard food, and worked with law enforcement, academia and industry partners to raise awareness and encourage participation in the initiative and a specific UK day of action against illicit vodka.

NFCU staff analysed in excess of 1,000 pieces of information with almost 800 of these resulting in the creation of an intelligence record on its database from January 2015 to March 2016, the paper revealed, while in the first three months of 2016, more than 30 reports containing actionable food crime intelligence were disseminated to national and local law enforcement partners.