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The regulator is seeking to allow designated officers powers of entry and search after a person had been arrested

The Food Standards Agency has launched a consultation over proposals to grant its National Food Crime Unit enhanced investigatory powers.

Proposals for the unit to expand its existing powers to include the ability to apply for search warrants, seize evidence and interview suspects who are under arrest received a “broadly supportive” response from stakeholders last year.

These powers – under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 – had so far not been conferred on the NFCU by the secretary for state for health and social care, the FSA said, though it continued to prepare for them to be enacted via secondary legislation.

But since last year, the FSA added it had also identified the requirement for an additional police-like power under section 18 of PACE to be extended to officers of the NFCU.

This would allow designated officers the powers of entry and search after a person had already been arrested. The proposed power extended to any premises occupied or controlled by the person arrested for an offence where there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that there is evidence on the premises relating to that offence, or to a related offence”, said the regulator.

A warrant would not be required to exercise these powers, it added.

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Section 18 PACE powers have been made accessible to other non-police bodies such as the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority. But while this power related to activity following an arrest by a police officer, there remained “no intention for the FSA to seek access to powers of arrest for its [own] food crime officers”, it stressed.

Handing the additional investigative powers to its officers “would enable the NFCU to more effectively detect and investigate food crime”, the FSA said.

“The use of investigatory powers is a serious responsibility and must be carefully exercised, controlled and monitored to retain public confidence and prevent misuse,” it added.

“The FSA is continuing to engage with the Home Office on the appropriate additional accountability and governance arrangements for the exercise of these powers, given their intrusive nature. It has access to a range of investigatory powers and has extensive experience in exercising them in a proportionate manner that is consistent with relevant safeguards and professional standards and is subject to independent oversight.”

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The consultation comes four months after the NFCU’s handling of an “industrial-scale” meat fraud scandal came under scrutiny, with critics accusing the FSA and the unit of failing to protect the public, and failing to keep the wider meat sector informed of the risks of the fraud.

But in an interview with The Grocer at the start of April, FSA CEO Emily Miles defended the agency’s record, stressing “we didn’t just sit there twiddling our thumbs doing nothing. In terms of alerting the industry, we did what we could [on the fraud case]. We sent an alert via the The Food Industry Intelligence Network (FIIN) and a newsletter to industry to ask them to take extra care over a claimed premium product that went out quite wide – including to some of the meat bodies who said we didn’t tell them [anything]”.

A month later, and in the wake of an industry-wide roundtable meeting to discuss the scandal, the FSA pledged to review and improve how it protects the food system against rogue actors, with Miles announcing the regulator was looking “to explore improvements to the current system”.