The reaction could not have been any swifter. Just minutes after the publication of Professor Chris Elliott’s final report on Thursday morning - in which he called for the UK to set up a food crime unit - the government put out its response, announcing…the creation of a food crime unit.
The new unit will sit within the Food Standards Agency, and will be operational by the end of the year.
In creating it, the government appears to have agreed to implement perhaps the most eye-catching of Elliott’s recommendations.
But how much of a difference is it likely to make to the UK’s fight against food crime? And what can industry do to improve its resilience?
As so often, the devil will be in the detail. The unit is being set up on a two-year trial basis only, and the government is not making any new money available to fund it at this stage. Instead, the funds will come from the FSA’s current operating budget.
This is likely to raise questions about the government’s long-term commitment to the unit, which it estimates will cost between £2-4m a year. “There’s no way the FSA has £2-4m burning a hole in its pocket,” warns one source.
Elliott was keen for the UK to follow the example of the Netherlands in building its food crime unit, but it seems highly unlikely the new FSA-hosted unit will match the capabilities of the Dutch operation, which employs 110 full-time staff and has an annual budget of £10.2m.
Crucially, to be effective, experts believe the new unit has to be staffed with current or former police officers to build up investigative expertise.
A spokeswoman for the FSA says the core of the unit, which will have 30 staff, will be created by reorganising existing FSA teams and it is “recruiting a small number of additional permanent and seconded staff to support this.”
But some experts are already concerned that if the unit fails to build up the necessary investigative expertise, it will by default fail to find evidence of food crime - and two years down the line, the government will decide to pull the plug on the unit because it is deemed superfluous.
Elliott’s report suggests this is something the UK food industry could ill afford. In one telling section, it claims the Dutch food crime unit conducted three major investigations arising from the horsemeat scandal during which it found evidence of criminal activity between the Netherlands and the UK but found no partner organisation in the UK to talk to.
Speaking to The Grocer this week, Elliott says the UK is in a much better position today to investigate food crimes than it was in early 2013, but he remains concerned about criminal activity in the food industry.
“There are strong indications that food crime is happening within the UK and the review has been presented with information about threats made by criminals to regulators inspecting food businesses, and by honest businesses trying to compete with cheats,” he says in his report.
A vulnerable industry
Gary Copson, a former Metropolitan police commander who advised the Elliott Review, says there is no doubt that organised criminals are operating within the UK food sector. “Anyone who knows anything about crime and criminals will tell you the same: it is inconceivable that a £200bn a year industry that is in essence unpoliced and increasingly unregulated will not have attracted the attention of organised crime.”
“The food industry is by its nature vulnerable,” agrees Professor Lisa Jack, an expert in forensic accounting at Portsmouth University and also an adviser to the Elliott Review.
This is exacerbated by high levels of consolidation, vast product choice and a 24-hour consumer culture, Jack adds. “From my experience, it’s a very frenetic industry in which people are flogging themselves to death trying to make the system work. The industry we’ve created is one in which people have to work flat out and make very quick decisions, so is it any surprise red flags sometimes get missed?”
Having a food crime unit should help ensure fewer red flags are missed in the future. But no matter how well-resourced, it won’t offer simple answers either.
Indeed, some view the prospect of a food crime unit with trepidation. Jessica Burt, a lawyer at Mills & Reeve and an adviser to the review, says it’s a sound idea provided the unit has a clear focus on serious criminal activity - not conducting dawn raids over minor technical breaches.
“Over recent years, there’s been a general trend away from criminalising technical and regulatory breaches. My concern is this might be a creep back into criminalisation.”
The final report also leaves open questions about the thorny issue of intelligence sharing. “What’s the responsibility of food companies to inform on any issues they may be picking up and how might you extend privilege and ensure anonymity?” asks Burt. “There’s general talk about how this could be protected, but there’s still going to be some reticence in sharing intelligence.”
And therein lies perhaps the biggest challenge for the food industry as it seeks to secure a positive legacy from Horsegate.
The new food crime unit, if well-resourced and staffed, could be a major step forward. But “there also needs for cultural change,” says Jack. “Food companies need to ask themselves, do you ever talk about fraud at board level?”
Jack is nevertheless optimistic about the long-term legacy of Elliott’s review. Though show-stopping gestures from industry are unlikely, that’s not to say changes aren’t being made behind the scenes.”Sometimes companies will be very cautious about what they say - they don’t want to say ‘we’re making these all these big changes around food fraud’ in case people think that means they have a big problem. But I do think we will see a quiet tightening up, more soul-searching and a battening down of hatches.”