The EU is a food fraudster’s paradise. Food travels unchecked across 28 countries, some 1.5 million square miles, before ending up on the plates of its 530 million unsuspecting people. All in the name of the EU’s first of four fundamental freedoms: free movement of goods.

The criminals behind the horsemeat scandal took full advantage in 2013 with the fraud involving a labyrinthine supply chain of murky meat brokers. Horsemeat moved undetected through Romanian slaughterhouses to Dutch and Cypriot food traders before ending up in French ready meals labelled as beef; while UK burgers caught up in the scandal had connections to both Poland and Spain.

Significantly, all cases came from inside the EU. Caught without an action plan or an effective warning system, EU authorities were left red-faced. So it’s tempting to conclude the UK is better placed to fend off food fraud by voting yes to Brexit on 23 June. Or is it?

Others insist the UK risks exposing itself to opportunistic fraudsters for years. Not only that, but we’ll face up to it isolated from the EU agencies set up in the wake of Horsegate specifically to tackle the problem. So would restricted movement of goods into the UK really give government a better handle on food fraud?

When it comes to checking the safety of food arriving in the UK from the EU, both camps agree that even if Brexit does happen, and the UK is no longer bound by the free movement of goods, we’re unlikely to see mandatory checks on each and every consignment that arrives. Dr Richard North, a political consultant backing Brexit, brushes off the suggestion. And the Brexit sceptic Rachel Lyne, a partner at law firm Browne Jacobson, agrees. “You have to be dependent on the paperwork trail to tell you whether or not that product is safe to go to consumers,” she says.

Which isn’t far from the current position as part of the EU. Currently, food shipped from member countries is only subject to checks from authorities at the UK border on an ad hoc basis, often when an irregularity has been spotted in its paperwork. (It was one of these spot checks by Irish food inspectors that led to the first discovery of horsemeat in January 2013.)

Conversely, products arriving from non-EU countries are subject to far stricter controls. Meat, dairy and fish may only enter via specialised Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) or risk being destroyed as soon as they arrive in the UK. Just under half of all 3,000 food safety alerts flagged up by the EU’s RASFF (Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) in 2014 were picked up during one of these checks at the EU’s external borders.

Britain could extend this same rigour to all products from inside the EU if it voted yes to Brexit but that would require an enlarged food inspectorate. “We’ve been cutting our state food inspectors, we’ve been stretching food supply chains and now, if we had Brexit, we would have a serious extra level of fraying on an already frayed fabric,” points out Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University. The FSA has seen its budget slashed by £22m since the horsemeat scandal and only four months ago the Chancellor announced funds would be frozen once more, a cut in real terms of 7%.

Police Supplier Fraud


Scepticism also surrounds the newly established National Food Crime Unit, set up at end of 2014. In September 2015 it emerged that more cash would be needed to give the body police-style powers, to investigate and punish food crime. Without that it is restricted to gathering information and intelligence. “We all remain positively sceptical,” sums up Lyne.

Joining forces across the EU is a more effective method of fighting food fraud than acting alone, believes Professor Chris Elliott, director of the Institute of Global Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast. “We are much stronger as a single European entity,” he says, adding that Brexit would put the UK’s participation in helpful EU agencies such as the Food Fraud Network (FFN) and Europol (see box) at risk.

FFN sets up a chain of alert between relevant authorities in all member states (i.e. the FSA in the UK) the moment food fraud is detected. Of the 60 cases shared by FFN during 2014 the majority concerned meat, fish or honey - all areas the EU has since begun investigating with wider testing.

“What criminals do is look for the path of least resistance,” adds Elliott. “If the UK is not part of this network it might be considered an area of higher vulnerability.”

Yet pro-Brexit campaigners have no such fear. “Where the EU provides a worthwhile and value for money service” like the FFN “there’s no reason at all why we shouldn’t continue [to use it], and it’s very much to the EU’s advantage too,” says North. Pragmatism would win out, adds David Richardson, vice president of the EMEA region for food safety experts NSF. “You may get divorced but it’s still in your interests to bring the children up properly so you reach an arrangement that transcends separation,” he says.

Paying a membership fee to agencies such as FFN would be one solution, suggests North. And it wouldn’t leave the UK vulnerable to unilateral reform, either. “We have a chequebook so if they start messing us around we can simply opt out,” he adds.

But where does that leave the reams of EU rules and regulations governing food fraud and food safety? Sixty five articles are contained in the EU’s General Food Law regulation alone, all of which apply directly to the UK and include rules on product recall, misleading packaging and traceability. Much of this has been adopted into UK law via the Food Safety Act 1990.

“Almost all controls that govern food safety, how we label and refer to food, or protect consumers, have been developed through EU regulations,” says Lyne. That umbrella control ensures “a consumer can buy a hamburger from Italy or Spain in the UK and have certainty that the food safety and welfare standards are the same.”

Potentially unsafe products face the same restrictions wherever they are in the EU. Currently all food and feed arriving from Japan must undergo extra checks at border posts following the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2011. Similar rules apply to Brazilian nuts and dried spices from India.

Regardless of the referendum result, manufacturers that export to EU countries may still be required to comply after Brexit in order to pass the necessary checks. The only difference “is we’d have no influence over the changes” says Lyne.

North is adamant that’s not the case. “Increasingly” Brussels bureaucrats don’t dream up food law anyway, he says. Instead it comes from global agencies, in particular the OIE (the World Organisation for Animal Health), the Codex Alimentarius and the IPPC (International Plant Protection Convention) - all of which fall under the WTO’s 1994 agreement on how governments can apply food safety around the world. 

europe flag

EU Supremacy

As one of 162 members sitting at the WTO table, the EU lobbies, negotiates, and agrees food safety laws at this international level, says North, before they are adopted at EU level and then here in the UK. As most are technical (they concern the manufacturing, marketing or import of a product) they then bypass voting in the EU parliament and are passed instead via a controversial procedure looked after by the European Commission. “We hear all this garbage of us not having a vote [after Brexit] but all this technical legislation isn’t voted on anyway,” adds North. “Outside the EU we’d have direct access [to these international organisations]; we’d resume our seats on these boards and be able to shape the law long before it gets to the EU.”

Farming minister George Eustice agrees. “If we ended the supremacy of EU law, we would simply put in place our own legislation. It would be easier and simpler to make changes that improved food standards.”

So pro-Brexit campaigners sound confident. But only last week a Cabinet paper warned of ‘a decade or more of uncertainty’ as complex arrangements are renegotiated and ties to the EU unravelled.

After only two years - the transitional time allowed under the EU’s exit protocol Article 50 - consumers and businesses could find themselves without legislative protection or guidance under EU law until replacements are agreed. This uncertainty arguably creates a breeding ground for fraud. “If there’s even a chink of light for people to abuse the system while in a state of disarray you have to assume they’ll try,” says Lyne.

Specifically, predicted fluctuations in currency could be disastrous. “Those are absolutely fantastic opportunities for criminals, particularly those who buy and sell things,” says Elliott gives the example of buying British beef in a UK supermarket that costs £6 per kg. If shipping beef from France - because of fluctuating currency - only costs £4 per kg then “there’s a wonderful incentive for selling French beef labelled as British.”

Yet North laughs off the idea that uncertainty outside the EU should put us off Brexit. “As soon as all this is over, one way or another the EU is going to come out with another treaty and god knows what they’re going to do,” he says. “This is an uncertain world.”

And it’s a world where fraudsters will seek to subvert the rulebook whichever way the UK public votes. Or as Mark Surguy, partner at law firm Weightmans sums up: “Fraud is a pernicious evil that will continue. Brexit or no Brexit.”

Who, what, why: the EU agencies fighting food fraud

  • Food Fraud Network

The horsemeat scandal made it clear that tackling food fraud requires information to be shared quickly. The FFN links liaison points in each of the 28 member countries so when food fraud is suspected or detected, a detailed alert is quickly circulated. Since it was set up, FFN has dealt with around 200 cases, 108 of which occurred in 2015. In November 2015 the EU brought in a brand new IT program, too, the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation system, to ensure an even more rapid rate of data sharing

  • European Food Safety Authority

Funded by the EU, EFSA was set up in 2002 to rebuild consumer confidence after a series of food crises during the 1990s. It provides impartial advice to the European Commission, the European Parliament and individual member states on food and feed safety, nutrition, animal welfare and plant protection. Some of its rulings have proven controversial, including one in November 2015, which rejected classifying the herbicide glyphosate a carcinogen, a decision that contradicted findings by WHO. The EC had looked likely to grant the weedkiller a new 15-year licence until opposing member states forced the vote to be delayed this week to await further evidence

  • Europol

The EU’s law enforcement agency -and one of its biggest targets is organised fraud. More than 900 staff work at its HQ in the Netherlands liaising with the 28 EU member states and Australia, Canada, the US and Norway. Samples of horsemeat were handed to Europol investigators in 2013 with its officers co-ordinating regional police forces to carry out arrests of the suspected perpetrators. In 2015 the agency’s Operation Opson IV seized more than 2,500 tonnes of illegal and fraudulent food from 47 countries including cheese, strawberries, eggs, cooking oil and dried fruit. Checks at shops, markets, airports and seaports by police and Customs led to exposure of the food racket

  • Food Integrity Project

A five-year €12m project funded by the EU, which runs until 2018 and aims to reduce barriers to data sharing in order to combat food fraud. The project is working with industry across 18 countries, including China, to harmonise food authentication “and protect European added value”. UK advisors include Professor Chris Elliott and Ian Goodall of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute

Bendy bananas, bottled water and bonkers rules on eggs: the food laws handed down by Brussels…

The brilliant:

From December 2014 the EU required all labels on fish to include the scientific name of the species. A study one year later showed just 6% of fish in the EU had been mislabelled, a significant improvement on the 40% from five years earlier

The General Food Law in 2002 gave legal status to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), which lets member states exchange information on unsafe food products and issue a recall. It was used 3,157 times in 2014 with 751 of those requiring action

After EFSA figures showed a 10% rise in cases of campylobacter across all 28 member states in 2014, legislation on levels in poultry was drafted. Set to be adopted in August, the legislation gives a target that 90% of carcases will carry fewer than 1,000 colony-forming units. It will force everyone in the industry to rethink current standards, say experts

The bureaucratic:

In 1995 the EU banned bendy bananas. Any items of the fruit sold in the EU had to be “free of abnormal curvature” or else be labelled ‘second class’. The regulation became one of the most ridiculed in the EU’s history and member states voted the marketing rules on misshapen fruit and veg should be scrapped in 2008

In 2011 the EU reportedly forbade manufacturers from claiming bottled water “prevented dehydration” on labels. But the decision wasn’t that clear cut. EFSA rejected the claim for administrative reasons, and thankfully didn’t challenge the view that water hydrates

Shopkeepers were up in arms in 2010 when The Grocer discovered the EU was proposing legislation that would require food be sold by weight, not number, preventing products like eggs from being sold by the dozen. The rules were quietly adjusted