As case against Russell Hume collapses, where does NFCU go from here?

Russell Hume “knowingly misled its customers in the way it labelled meat in respect of traceability and shelf life”, the FSA insisted last week. Yet the regulator also admitted its long-running investigation into the wholesaler had collapsed.

It’s a disaster for the regulator and its National Food Crime Unit. Though it insists it always “acted appropriately”, the Operation Orchid investigation ultimately cost taxpayers almost £2m while leading to the liquidation of Russell Hume, with the loss of 300 jobs.

So why did Orchid collapse and what does the future hold for the unit?

In a paper published by the FSA board’s business committee on 16 June, current FSA CEO Emily Miles said the Russell Hume case – by far the NFCU’s highest profile probe to date – failed due to a “technical legal error” in the early stages of the investigation.

Created at the end of 2014, the unit was a key recommendation of Professor Chris Elliott’s post-Horsegate review into food security, but it was not until June 2018 that it secured an extra £2m funding to progress to a ‘phase two’ of development, giving it full investigative powers and increasing the unit’s headcount.

When Operation Orchid began in January 2018, however, it was still working to its ‘phase one’ parameters with only a limited intelligence-gathering capability.

FSA calls for increased powers as part of National Food Strategy

While declining to talk specifically about the legal error, Miles added that the unit has since been “progressively enhancing investigative capabilities”, while internal systems have also been improved to mitigate any similar situations arising.

With a near £6m budget and 77 employees, the FSA stresses the NFCU is now a significantly different body that “can draw on an impressive range of law enforcement capabilities and subject matter expertise”.

Unanswered questions

Still, there are “lots of unanswered questions”, a source with knowledge of the case says.

It appears the unit was “keen to get stuck into a case and get results”, suggests food fraud expert Eoghan Daly, forensic services director at accountancy firm Crowe UK. “To get over this, it needs to tell industry how it messed up and how it won’t happen again.”

The question is: how? The source highlights that fraud is inherently “more complex than rule breaches under the Food Safety Act”. With the need to “prove recklessness or the intent to deceive, you wonder how they got so far”.

But in a piece in New Food magazine last month, Chris Elliott argued the NFCU still had insufficient powers “to undertake complex fraud investigations”, despite the extra funding. The unit could only enter into investigations if it could convince a UK police force to lead on the investigations, and this “rarely happens”, he added.

In her report Miles similarly stressed the need for the NFCU to access powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, to succeed in the long term, allowing it to “simplify [its] ability to collect evidence and so increase its chances of success”.

But the agency has yet to convince ministers it needs those powers to launch investigations independently, without first persuading a police force to lead.

The FSA says it “continues to consult with officials and ministers on this issue”, and is making “every effort” to “identify and secure suitable legislation” which would include the necessary amendments to enable the NFCU to access such powers.

Its new chair, Susan Jebb, will also be raising it further with ministers once she assumes her post in July, a spokesman adds.

Until it can secure such powers, the prospect of a big result to help validate the unit’s work over the past six years remains a challenge.

Collapsed FSA investigation into Russell Hume scandal cost £2m