Operating the new food crime unit will be a “major challenge” for the Food Standards Agency, the watchdog’s chairman admitted this week.

It comes as FSA board members have urged the regulator to manage the public’s expectations as to what the new unit will be able to achieve.

The unit, which will sit within the FSA, was proposed by Professor Chris Elliott in his final post-Horsegate report last week, and has been accepted by the government for a two-year trial.

Speaking this week at the FSA board meeting, chairman Tim Bennett warned operating the unit would be a “major challenge” and would “bring significant extra work for the agency.”

In its official response to the Elliott Review, the government said the unit would “give greater focus to enforcement against food fraud in government by analysing intelligence, initiating investigations and liaising with other criminal and regulatory enforcement agencies.”

But board member Ram Gidoomal warned the formation of the unit could also bring with it a significant reputational risk for the FSA, if it was perceived to be less effective than consumers and industry imagined. “There is an issue around managing expectations, he said. With the FSA now being asked to tackle criminals, it also needed to have a strategy for managing any personal risk to its staff, Gidoomal added.

Chief operating officer Andrew Rhodes said the public needed to understand the unit would not have “police or quasi-police powers,” adding there had been some misreporting on the issue.

He also cautioned that with a budget of £1.5m for its first year, and £2m for its second, it would not have the scope of bigger units in Denmark and The Netherlands. But he added: “We are determined to be effective. But it’s going to be a challenging area we’re getting into.”