The food crime unit set up by the government in the wake of the horsemeat scandal might never actually investigate criminal activity in the food chain.

Food Standards Agency (FSA) chief operating officer Jason Feeney warned earlier this month that evolving the organisation into having a food crime unit with police-style powers would require further government funding. And he has now hinted the unit might never be given powers to investigate and punish criminal activity in the food chain.

The National Food Crime Unit was set up to great fanfare at the end of last year on the recommendation of Professor Chris Elliott’s review into food chain security. It is currently gathering information and intelligence on the nature of food crime in the UK.

“What the government agreed to do post-Elliot was have two years understanding the nature of the threat and the risk, and then review that and think about whether there was a need for an additional investigative unit over and above the powers that are there already,” he told the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) conference in Cheshire this weekend.

He pointed out that food-related incidents were currently being investigated by local authorities and the police, and suggested this arrangement might continue rather than such activites being conducted through the food crime unit.

A new Horsegate-style scandal

Feeney’s comments came as other AIMS conference speakers claimed food fraud was still rife, and the UK was at risk of another Horsegate-style scandal.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee chair Neil Parish MP warned the current retail environment meant “everyone is getting squeezed” and people would be “tempted to cut corners” if prices were pushed down further.

“We never really found the culprits in the Horsegate scandal, which is a problem because people feel they can get away with it again,” he added.

AIMS policy director Norman Bagley also questioned the failure to prosecute anyone for substituting horsemeat for beef, describing the investigation into the scandal as “the biggest waste of public funds I have seen in 40 years in the trade”.

Patrick Wall, professor of public health at University College Dublin, said the proposed cuts to Defra’s budget would leave the UK food chain particularly vulnerable to fraud and criminal activity. “People will always engage in fraudulent activity if there is money to be made; greed is a great motivator,” he said.

Professor Chris Elliott has long warned that a fully functional national food crime unit is essential to protecting UK consumers and the food industry from criminal activity.

“If the unit is not properly resourced and becomes operational in terms of having an investigative capability in the short to medium term, we run the risk of further highly damaging incidents such as that experienced during the horsemeat scandal,” he told The Grocer. “The next time we may not be so lucky in terms of the impact on human health.”