The anniversary of the publication of my final report on the integrity and assurance of food supply networks is close and it seems like a good time to take stock.
The raging price wars among the mults continue, the escalating issue of obesity is becoming more centre stage and, of course, we have a new government. So, plenty of things to occupy people’s attention and reduce the need or ability to think about cheating and criminal activity in our food system.
But I have retained quite a bit of contact with many areas of the food industry who are working towards trying to understand their vulnerability to food fraud and develop measures to prevent their exposure to it. The food industry has set up a number of mechanisms for sharing sensitive information that simply would not have happened before Horsegate.
However, when I talk to the manufacturing sector there are two issues I highlighted in my report that seem not to have gone away: too many repetitive audits and highly aggressive buying practices to drive down prices. Both need to be discussed and dealt with at boardroom level.
There is now the cross-government working group on food integrity and food crime chaired by George Eustice. I’m told this is helping to bring together the elements of the public service sadly lacking prior to Horsegate. The National Food Crime Unit is now also operational and led by a well respected former senior police officer. It’s of the upmost importance that it is given time and resource to develop an operational capacity.
I’m acutely aware of the many issues of fraud and criminal activity in food systems happening globally. We got lucky with Horsegate as it was for many their first exposure to what can go wrong when cheats are at work and systems are not in place to deter and detect, and the wellbeing of UK citizens was not affected.
Without the necessary level of vigilance or resourcing, continued change in the culture of the UK food industry or government’s reaffirmation it will protect us from food criminals, it may happen again - and if it does, our luck may run out.
Professor Chris Elliott is director of the Institute of Food Safety at Queen’s University, Belfast