Supermarkets and meat suppliers are putting themselves and consumers at risk by refusing to speak up about food fraud, the head of the UK National Food Crime Unit has warned.
Speaking at a Foodex panel discussion organised by The Grocer yesterday, Andy Morling confirmed the NFCU was on the brink of getting “all the funding we have wished for” and “full end-to-end investigative capabilities.”
However, his team would not be able to tackle criminality in the sector and prevent future incidents unless the industry was more co-operative, he warned.
The NFCU was still receiving very little intelligence from industry sources despite repeated reassurances whistle-blowers would be given “absolute anonymity”, Morling said.
And even when it knew criminal activity had taken place in a business, convincing other industry participants to give evidence or stand as witnesses was “challenging”.
“There seems to be a desire not to engage with us in any way,” he added. “In our brave new world as an investigating body, we still won’t be able to prosecute cases because witnesses won’t be engaging with us to give statements. That’s a huge worry.”
A fully operational NFCU would be able to take cases right through from initial intelligence gathering to prosecution, but it would need industry engagement “at every step of the journey”, he stressed.
“By working together we can have a significant impact on that very thin seam of criminality in an otherwise very healthy industry.”
Norman Bagley, policy director of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, acknowledged the need for more intelligence sharing, but said the industry remained concerned over the issue of confidentiality.
“We are going to have to sit down with Andy and others throughout the chain to look at what guarantees there are for whistle-blowers,” he said. “Once we’ve got that confidence I think we can move ahead in a much more proactive and positive way.”
British Meat Processors Association chief executive Nick Allen said there was still a lack of understanding in the industry about how the NFCU operated, and stressed “more dialogue” was needed to improve information sharing from both sides.
“People have to understand they are not just dobbing someone up, they are also helping their own businesses,” he said.
“Ultimately they want to sell meat and so the image of the industry is of absolute importance. We have to drive these people out of the industry and give the consumer some confidence.”
It was agreed the NFCU would look to set up a forum for discussion with AIMS and the BMPA to address some of these issues.