Food Safety Crime Criminal

Food and drink companies must overcome their reluctance to share sensitive information with regulators and authorities to ensure British consumers are protected from the activities of food criminals.

That is the warning from the National Food Crime Unit, as it published its first annual strategic assessment on food crime to the UK today (23 March).

The NFCU – which was set up within the Food Standards Agency in the wake of the horsemeat scandal – said it was incredibly difficult to get reliable data and intelligence on criminal activity in the UK food chain. Victim reporting – the key way in which crimes are discovered in other sectors – was very low in food crime, as consumers rarely realised they had been victims of food fraud or other criminal activity. That made it all the more important for companies to alert authorities to any suspicious activities, the NFCU said.

Such information, however, had not been forthcoming because companies often worried reporting potential crimes could lead to bad PR, unwarranted regulatory scrutiny or a loss of business, the report said. Instead of talking to the authorities, food companies therefore often addressed irregularities through contracts. As a result, the NFCU had to rely largely on anecdotal evidence in its report, and was not able to come to any quantitative assessment of how big a problem crime is in UK food and drink.

Attitudes within the industry needed to change, as the primary responsibility for avoiding food crime lay with the industry, the report said.

“Cross-sector collaboration in the public interest is therefore vital. When the legitimate food industry identifies food crime, businesses must feel able to report suspicions rather than simply addressing them through their contractual relationships with suppliers. The bilateral sharing of knowledge between the public and private sectors can only bring enhanced outcomes for consumers and food businesses alike.”

Following the horsemeat scandal in 2013, a review of the UK food chain by Professor Chris Elliott suggested better intelligence gathering and sharing between different government agencies and with the industry was crucial to avoid food crime in the future.

The NFCU said while law enforcement agencies and regulators were now working more closely together than before, intelligence sharing with the industry remained “at an early stage”. “We are calling on those working in the food industry to report suspicions to the NFCU to help fill these gaps,” said Andy Morling, head of the NFCU. “I’m confident that they have a wealth of knowledge and information which will help the unit ensure that UK food supply remains protected.”

Some commentators have suggested industry cooperation has been low because there is concern about whether sensitive information could end up in the public domain, for example through Freedom of Information requests to the FSA, or lead to warranted scrutiny from regulators.

The NFCU report said there were currently three projects underway to help industry share information and testing results through “safe spaces” in an anonymised form. But it warned: “Whilst positive dialogue continues, it will take time for this to translate into a steady flow of actionable intelligence into the Units. The analysis in this assessment would be greatly enhanced by the inclusion of both broad and more specific information from the food industry.”