The UK is to get a dedicated food crime unit to better protect itself against organised criminals infiltrating the food industry - but it will only be run on a trial basis and the government is not making any new money available for it.
The move was announced by Defra secretary of state Liz Truss on 4 September, following the publication of the final report of Professor Chris Elliott’s post-Horsegate inquiry.
The new unit will sit within the Food Standards Agency and have 30 staff. It will be operational by the end of the year and will be run on a two-year trial basis initially, after which it will be reviewed.
“In the first instance, the unit will focus on developing the evidence and intelligence picture so that we better understand the risks,” Truss said. “The unit will be trialled for two years, after which we will review progress and likely future needs.”
Elliott: the key recommendations
Professor Chris Elliott’s final report makes eight core recommendations.
Like his call for a food crime unit, these largely echo the recommendations made in his interim report last December, including a better, more coordinated approach to food authenticity testing and fewer but tougher audits.
But in a key departure from the interim report, Elliott is no longer calling for responsibility for testing to pass back from Defra to the FSA. Instead, he wants an overall authenticity network, in which it is less important which particular agency is looking after testing. “I saw it becoming such a political issue; I wanted something that would work,” Elliott told The Grocer.
The government estimates the new unit will cost from £2m to £4m a year to run, but is not making any new funds available for it at this stage. Instead, the monies will come from the FSA’s existing budget.
“The unit will require significant resource that will initially be found from the FSA’s operating budget, starting with a team of around 30 staff split between intelligence and investigatory expertise,” a spokeswoman for the FSA said.
The creation of the new food crime unit comes as Elliott’s report has suggested major shortcomings in the UK’s efforts to investigate the horsemeat scandal last year.
It said Dutch investigators last year came across evidence of criminal activity between the Netherlands and the UK, but they “found no partner organisation in the UK to talk to.”
The report does not make clear when in 2013 these attempts were made, and a spokesman for City of London Police said since it had taken charge of the UK’s horsemeat investigations in May 2013, it had met with Dutch investigators.
The report also said that before City of London Police accepted the case, “the investigation was being co-ordinated by the FSA and conducted, at least in part, by regulators with insufficient experience or expertise in the investigation of serious food crime and none at all in tackling complex organised crime.”
The FSA spokeswoman said the agency had “responded to all requests that have been received via RASFF [the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed] from EU member states, including the Netherlands, in relation to adulteration of meat products with horsemeat.”