Booths has been caught up in an FSA probe around possible fraud

Ever since the Horsegate scandal rocked the meat sector 10 years ago, mention of the words ‘beef’ and ‘fraud’ inevitably resurfaces doubts over the wider integrity of meat supply chains.

And last week – when revelations emerged that a UK supermarket was embroiled in a food fraud probe over imported beef passed off as British – was no different.

The FSA’s National Food Crime Unit investigation ‘Operation Hawk’ (of which some detail had already been in the public domain for more than a year) was reported by Farmers Weekly to be related to imported, prepacked sliced beef.

Amid mounting speculation, northern supermarket Booths then confirmed a link to possible food fraud last Friday.

Booths stressed it was “categorically” not under investigation by the NFCU itself, and had been working “co-operatively” with the unit since it was made aware of the potential food fraud issues in 2021. It said it had pulled the suspect product from shelves and “ceased trading with the supplier with immediate effect”.

It took until Monday of this week for the supplier under investigation to be identified by The Sun newspaper as Loscoe Chilled Foods. Loscoe director Daniel Ryde confirmed the NFCU case was linked to “the possibility South American corned beef may have passed through one of our slicing sites in March 2021”.

He later told The Grocer the issue was “isolated” with “no suggestion any other customers are affected”. The business took the issue “very seriously” and it was “fully supporting the FSA with its work”, he added.

That has raised the question: should others have been warned earlier too, so they could take similar action to Booths with regard to the supplier, if only as a precaution?

The FSA has said it cannot “provide further details as this could jeopardise the investigation and any future proceedings”.

But the timeline of revelations has led the National Beef Association, British Meat Processors Association, and the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers to accuse the FSA and NFCU of lacking sufficient transparency.

AIMS spokesman Tony Goodger is “frustrated” the NFCU didn’t “at least issue an industry warning at the start of their investigation”.

The trade body had regularly asked the NFCU for more information on the product under investigation ever since detail of Operation Hawk was included in the unit’s annual report, discussed at the FSA board meeting before Christmas. However, the NFCU simply “refused to answer”, according to Goodger.

“Booths was able to withdraw it because it has become part of an investigation, but the rest of the industry was not able to do the same, because [until Loscoe was named this week] they didn’t know who the supplier was.” Meanwhile AIMS knew “nothing other than the stuff that was in the public domain and that simply begs more questions”.

Booths are on the march

Loscoe Chilled Foods said there was a ‘possibility South American corned beef may have passed through one of our slicing sites in March 2021

Tip of the iceberg

Professor Chris Elliott, founder of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast – who recommended the creation of the NFCU in the wake of Horsegate – last week told New Food Magazine the news may be the tip of the iceberg, asking: “Who else has the meat company supplied with falsely labelled beef” and “how did it get into the country?”

Despite AIMS and other trade bodies meeting senior NFCU members two years ago and agreeing to take a more collaborative approach, the relation remains “not very collaborative”, according to Goodger.

His comments were echoed by food safety consultant Alec Kyriakides, who worked as Sainsbury’s head of quality, safety & supplier performance for 28 years until 2020. Kyriakides argues this lack of intelligence sharing with industry is at odds with the principles of the post-Horsegate regulatory environment, which led to the creation of bodies such as the Food Industry Intelligence Network as well as the NFCU.

“I appreciate it’s difficult in an investigation, you don’t want to reveal everything going on ahead of a potential prosecution,” he says. “But where is the statement on the FSA’s website putting it all into context?

“There needs to be reassurance for consumers and the meat sector it’s not a wider issue.”

He added that intelligence should be shared so that other impacted parties could act, before adding “you don’t need to name them”.

In response, the FSA stressed “this is not a food safety issue but a matter of food fraud”.

NFCU head Darren Davies said “any fraud investigations of this nature take time to go through evidence and bring to any outcome, including any potential prosecution.

“We take food fraud very seriously and are acting urgently to protect the consumer.”

Regardless of how the investigation pans out, the regulator will have bridges to build if it wants to regain the trust of key industry stakeholders, not to mention dampen fears food fraud is on the rise.