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The FSA’s National Food Crime Unit is investigating a case where a supplier passed off foreign sliced beef as British in one (unnamed) major supermarket

Mystery surrounds the identity of a retailer and meat supplier at the centre of an investigation by the National Food Crime Unit, after it emerged the Food Standards Agency body was probing a major beef fraud case linked to the two.

A report published earlier this week by farming title Farmers Weekly unveiled further detail around an ongoing NFCU case called Operation Hawk – revealing the investigation was related to imported, pre-packed sliced beef products being passed off as British in the unnamed supermarket.

Some detail around the case has been available on the FSA website for more than a year and was reported on by The Grocer’s sister title Food Manufacture as far back as December 2021.

Since this article was published, Booths has confirmed it was the supermarket in question. The full story is here.

The NFCU’s annual update, published in November 2022, further explained the investigation centred on the directors of a company “responsible for selling large volumes of pre-packed meat products to a UK supermarket retailer, who pride themselves on only selling British products”.

The unit’s probe alleged the supplier under investigation had been selling meat sourced from South America and Europe as British. The NFCU had reviewed circa 1.3 million documents related to the case, with investigators compiling “a full pre-interview disclosure package to the company’s defence lawyers for December 2022”, the report said.

This week’s Farmers Weekly report, which quoted NFCU deputy head Reginald Bevan, has now revealed the products were being sold to consumers as “best British beef”.

However, the NFCU has declined to offer any further information on the identity of the business under investigation, the retailer that sold the products or even the timings of the fraud. This comes despite growing concerns within the meat sector and among food fraud experts over the severity of the fraud and robustness of supply chains – a decade after the Horsegate scandal rocked the food industry.

Beef fraud seemed to “be alive and well in the UK”, tweeted food safety expert professor Chris Elliott yesterday in response to the Farmers Weekly story.

News of such a fraud also “undermined the great work of many food processing and retail companies” since Horsegate, said Elliott – who led the government’s response to the scandal and published an action plan to tackle food fraud in 2014, which included a recommendation to establish the NFCU.

The top 10 largest UK supermarkets have all denied they are the retailer under investigation, while Waitrose commercial director Charlotte Di Cello went a step further by stating the retailer knew “each and every farmer that produces our Waitrose beef”. 

At Waitrose, “higher welfare means higher welfare and British means British,” she added. “These standards are fundamental to our makeup and this will never change.”

The Farmers Weekly article suggested the retailer was outside the so-called big five.

Andrew Quinn, deputy head of NFCU, said the retailer linked to the fraud “was notified on the same day that we took action against the food business suspected of the fraud and immediately removed all affected products from their shelves”.

The retailer continued “to work closely and cooperatively with the NFCU investigation to progress the case against the supplier”, added Quinn, who said the unit would not provide “further details as this could jeopardise the investigation and any future proceedings”.

“This is not a food safety issue but a matter of food fraud,” he stressed.

“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.” 

In depth: Horsegate 10 years on… is our food any safer?

Why was beef fraud investigation not disclosed earlier?