As the future of the FSA is openly questioned due to its handling of the shocking meat fraud case, CEO Emily Miles has defended the actions it’s taken

An “industrial-scale” meat fraud scandal has rocked the industry, with fresh claims surrounding food safety breaches so serious that Professor Chris Elliott, of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, has described the scandal as potentially worse than the Horsegate scandal he investigated a decade ago.

A Farmers Weekly investigation claimed a supplier had (until at least the end of 2020) been passing off tens of thousands of tonnes of imported pork as British every week through a complex deception – which allegedly saw it mixing small amounts of British pork with cheaper imported product in a bid to falsely claim UK provenance on country-of-origin documentation.

The business was also accused of widespread food safety breaches, including the regular “washing” of hams visibly off and the mixing of rotting pork with fresh product for further processing.

While the business cannot be named for legal reasons, customers are understood to have included Oscar Mayer, Princes and, until 2019, Bakkavor – supplying ready meals, quiches, sandwiches and other products to the likes of Tesco, Asda, Coop, Morrisons, M&S, Ikea, Aldi, Subway and Bidfood.

The Farmers Weekly investigation followed an earlier report on 9 March revealing that a meat supplier was being investigated by the FSA’s National Food Crime Unit for passing off foreign beef as British as part of a probe called Operation Hawk.

The supplier was later confirmed to be Derbyshire-based Loscoe Chilled Foods, which had sold the meat to Booths. That supplier has now ceased trading, appointing administrators earlier this month.

The new revelations have prompted fresh concerns over the safety of food on supermarket shelves, with critics accusing the FSA of failing to protect the public, and there is concern within the industry about the FSA’s handling of the crisis.

So how has the FSA been conducting its investigation? What lessons can be learned? Is it still fit for purpose?

Regulatory reforms called for by the meat sector

  • Better use of tech and data to provide checks and balances and an improvement in record keeping
  • Better, more standardised testing of meat
  • Improved communication with key meat sector stakeholders
  • Tackle the 15-minute delay between auditors arriving on a meat processing site and entering the factory floor

At the heart of the meat sector’s concerns is a perceived lack of reassurance that the scandal doesn’t stretch further. Speaking on behalf of retailers, the BRC highlighted its support for the FSA’s “investigation into the individual supplier in question”. On the other hand, Farmers Weekly says it believes “fears that other businesses may be acting in the same way… are rooted in fact”.

Meat industry bodies have also criticised the FSA’s lack of transparency in communicating details of the NFCU’s investigations, and a perceived weakness in the regulatory framework to have allowed such alleged crimes to have gone undetected.

“It is utterly reprehensible and totally inexcusable that food manufacturers and foodservice businesses were not alerted at any time by the NFCU as to there either being a possibility of labelling fraud or of a risk to public health,” the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers said last week.

The FSA placed too much emphasis on sharing information with the Food Industry Intelligence Network – whose membership of fewer than 60 major food businesses contrast with the many thousands of businesses in the wider food industry, leading to a “fundamental flaw” around the flow of communication from the regulator to the wider sector, it added.

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Prevention vs prosecution

The British Meat Processors Association echoed these concerns, with CEO Nick Allen highlighting “the need for the NFCU and industry to work more closely together and share intelligence,… with a greater emphasis on prevention rather than prosecution”.

Other industry commentators have suggested too few of the NFCU’s staff – many of which are ex-police officers – have sufficient understanding of the intricacies of food production.

And there is now a growing clamour for the FSA and NFCU to be reformed, with some industry insiders calling for the FSA to be brought under ministerial control via Defra, and for its bosses to consider their positions.

Echoing these calls, Commons Efra Committee chair Robert Goodwill suggested in parliamentary questions last week that the FSA had “been misled and hoodwinked” by the business exposed in the Farmers Weekly investigation – which also revealed tactics used to delay and deceive food safety inspectors, such as moving suspect parcels of meat to a secret chiller while delaying inspectors from arriving on the factory floor, a practice Elliott called “sinister”.

Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey welcomed Goodwill’s suggestion that there was “a case to bring the FSA within Defra, rather than the Department of Health”, and to curb its independence. She said the suggestion would be discussed with the prime minister.

AIMS head of policy Norman Bagley said he supported such a move, pointing to how ministers “currently end up in the no-win situation of having all the responsibility when something goes wrong and no control”.

He added: “At the time [of its implementation more than two decades ago] it may have been a good idea for FSA to be independent. But now, with the agency’s extended role, ministers end up having to take the flak at the dispatch box for FSA failings when they have no control over the Agency. A lose, lose situation which needs correcting.”

But not everyone agrees with this position. NFU president Minette Batters told The Grocer maintaining the FSA’s independence and its “ability to hold people to account is key”.

In response to mounting criticism the FSA has insisted it has kept the food industry in the loop – pointing to how details around Operation Hawk have been public since 2021, and offering a robust defence of the agency and the NFCU.

In an exclusive interview with The Grocer this week, CEO Emily Miles “rejected the idea the FSA hasn’t acted”, and forcefully defended the resourcing of the NFCU by stressing the unit boasted a “wide spread of skills” and experience ranging from financial investigators to intelligence gathering. And it also employed ex-local authority food hygiene staff.

fsa sticker

FSA CEO Emily Miles dismissed concerns over the staffing of the NFCU with former police officers by pointing out the unit also employed experienced ex-local authority food hygiene staff 

Sharing information

The regulator had acted “at every single stage” of the case, she argued, pointing to how the FSA referred some complaints to the relevant local authority as far back as 2020, before it initiated its own investigation in August 2021.

And in response to criticism the FSA hadn’t shared enough intelligence on the case to the wider food sector, she stressed “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 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].”

When it emerged the probe was also related to food safety, it acted immediately to escalate the investigation, Miles added, with the number of documents under review rising to six million.

But while defending the FSA and NFCU’s work, she also admitted cuts to local authority regulation were a big concern and suggested a lack of resource at local level was becoming a “serious issue”.

The FSA, after all, was a national regulator and the last line of defence, Miles pointed out.

Food businesses had a responsibility to undertake their own testing regimes, while for initial investigations local authorities had the legal responsibility of enforcing food safety and investigating food fraud in meat processing plants – such as the one exposed in the Farmers Weekly investigation.

“We’ve been saying for some years we are really worried about local authorities and their resourcing,” she said, pointing to how there were an estimated 610,000 food businesses across the UK but just 345 Trading Standards officers and 1,370 food hygiene officers.

“There is a narrative around [local authority] food controls being red tape and overly bureaucratic, but they are there to protect the public, and this function needs to be properly resourced,” she insisted. “Food you can trust is a very precious thing and when that is lost it costs the food industry dearly.”

Amid a threat of food fraud increasing once again, now, more than ever, might be the time for the sector (and regulator) to come together.