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Food by VICE

What Will Having a Food Crime Unit Actually Mean?

Last year's horsemeat scandal shook the UK to its hooves. Now a government-backed Food Crime Unit has been approved, though, the food supply will come under greater scrutiny. But how will it actually work and what will it be preventing?

by Eleanor Morgan
Sep 25 2014, 4:45pm

Photo via Flickr user Earl

Last year's horsemeat scandal shook us all to our hooves.

Known here in the UK, fondly, as "horsegate", the country went into meltdown as it transpired that foods—mainly highly-processed products from supermarkets—advertised as containing beef were found to contain improperly declared horse meat. In some products, there was no beef at all. It was all horse.

Horse meat is obviously not harmful to health and is eaten widely across the world (the fact that our uproar was directed at what meat it was we were eating, rather than the murky business of food—particularly meat—production altogether was surprising), but the uncovering of just how widespread the cross-pollination of products was created a monumental crisis for the food industry. It was a complete breakdown of consumer trust.

A year after the scandal broke (in January 2013), a poll found that 31 percent of UK adults had subsequently changed the way they buy food, and that 95 percent of UK adults could recall the story. It's clearly something we are going to remember forever.

What the horsemeat scandal and subsequent reviews have shown is just how prone food networks are to abuse. Law enforcement agencies believe that food crime is becoming a bigger problem than we might realise, with some newspaper headlines suggesting that criminals are ditching drugs for food.

A new Food Crime Unit in the UK was approved by ministers earlier this month. There have been complaints about the time it's taken to complete the review—based on a report, The Elliott Review, by Professor Christopher Elliott—that instigated the unit, because supply chain scandals have grossly affected major companies across the world.

The horsemeat scandal is just one example of what can go wrong if supply chains aren't checked, though. In other cases, food crime can have fatal repercussions. The BBC reports that in China, melamine—an industrial chemical—was added to increase the protein content of baby milk in 2008. Six babies had severe kidney damage as a result and died. In 2012, more than 40 people were killed in the Czech Republic by rum and vodka that had been laced with methanol.

Reports also suggests that international gangs are said to be diversifying from armed robberies and drug trafficking into the world of fraudulent foods. Michael Ellis, assistant director of Interpol, told BBC News: "This has changed the scope of investigations. Criminals have realised that they can make the same amount of money by dealing with counterfeit food. Invariably the sentences are much lighter.

"In my experience, the patterns used by criminals involved in counterfeiting are very similar to those used in the dealing of drugs. They operate front companies, they employ front bank accounts, they will have false declarations for the movement of their goods, they will mis-declare their shipments."

The framework of a national food crime prevention unit, comprised of a specialist team within the Food Standards Agency will, Elliott told the BBC, "ensure measures are put in place to further help protect consumers from any food fraud incidents in the future". Government ministers have said all the ideas in his report will be accepted. But how will it actually work? I had a chat with Elliott to find out.

MUNCHIES: How safe is the British food system compared to others across the world? Professor Christopher Elliott: We should consider ourselves lucky in the UK as we do have one of the safest food systems in the world. However, due to the huge and ever increasing complexities of global food supply systems, we cannot become complacent.

The phrase 'food crime' obviously frightens people, and buying fresh ingredients from reputable butchers, grocers and fishmongers, etc, isn't an option for everyone, all of the time. Can those who sometimes rely on, say, frozen foods from the supermarket, feel safe in the knowledge that they're not serving their families anything untoward? I deliberately chose the phrase 'food crime' to highlight the seriousness of the problem. It is clear criminals operate in food systems across the world (including the UK) and more action is needed to tackle the growing problem. It is the responsibility of the food industry to ensure everything we purchase is safe and authentic. However the UK government has the clear responsibility of ensuring our food security as well and both industry and government must work together to project each and every citizen of the UK, rich and poor alike.

To what extent are food criminals, in your opinion, operating in this country, and in what kinds of fields? Very little is known about the level of food crime in the UK. This is because, prior to the horsemeat scandal, it simply wasn't on the radar of the government and police. I do believe when the know-how to undertake such investigations improves that we'll see more evidence emerging.

What are the worst, or most frightening, cases of food fraud you've come across or heard of in this country? Are we talking gangs, armed robberies and violence? Thankfully the worst cases of food fraud I come across happen outside the UK, and the EU for that matter. Cases of children being poisoned, rotten food being resold and sprayed with dangerous chemicals occur frequently. The emphasis in the UK is to prevent such things occurring here.

Does food crime work in a similar vein to drug trafficking? In my opinion there is no such thing as a food criminal. There are simply criminals who will take the easiest and safest route to making money out of us, the law abiding citizens. There are reports that serious organised criminal networks outside the UK are getting more and more involved in food fraud due to the massive profits that can be obtained and the low risk of detection or imprisonment if they are.

What are some of the consequences of food crime? It is not the intention of those who perpetrate food crime to injure or kill. However they have scant regard for those they con and there are numerous cases of food fraud occurring outside the UK that have resulted in illness and death. For us, as was the case of horsemeat, we are being ripped off into believing what we buy is of high quality and genuine.

What are the main suggestions, or hopes, from a government-backed food crime unit? How will it affect the average person on a day-to-day basis? What I recommended to the UK government (and they fully accepted) was to develop a national food crime prevention framework. That means industry and government working closely together to make it as difficult as possible for criminals to penetrate our food supply system. The Food Crime Unit will gather intelligence from multiple sources and investigate those reports which indicate the most widespread and serious criminal activity.

Presumably, developing a good whistleblowing system will be part of this. How will it work without compromising anyone? Whistleblowing is a key element. I believe that, in order to show that they really care about stopping food fraud, the food industry in the UK must work to develop a system where the Food Standards Agency and police—if appropriate—get to know as quickly as possible about suspicious activity in our food system.

Finally, how long would, or will, this unit take to be put into practise? The measures I recommended to the government are widespread, demanding a call for a culture change in the food industry and government in tackling food fraud. To implement it will not be easy, but I believe it's essential to protect us all. I hope within the next couple of years we will have the world's most secure food supply system.

Thanks for speaking with me.