A report sparked by Britain’s horse-meat scandal warns that consumers are vulnerable to criminal groups eyeing huge potential profits through deceptive practices in the food industry.
“My review to date has identified a worrying lack of knowledge regarding the extent to which we are dealing with criminals infiltrating the food industry,” said Professor Chris Elliott, in his interim report for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
“A significant change in culture is needed to deal with the threats of fraudulent activity that exist along complex supply chains,” he said.
“I believe criminal networks have begun to see the potential for huge profits and low risks in this area. The food industry and thus consumers are currently vulnerable.
“We need a culture within businesses involved in supplying food that focuses on depriving those who seek to deceive consumers.
“A food supply system which is much more difficult for criminals to operate in is urgently required,” he added.
A more robust Food Standards Agency had a major role to play partnering these efforts, Elliott said.
“The costs of delivering the necessary safeguards may seem a burden but the cost of failure is even greater. The integrity and assurance of our food supply matters enormously in both protecting consumers and bolstering the reputation of our food industry.”
It was important to regain and enhance public trust, he said.
Elliott said the horse-meat crisis was an obvious trigger for the inquiry, but so too were concerns about the increasing potential for food fraud, which he referred to as food crime.
Food crime needed tackling urgently, he concluded, saying it was a global problem.
“Limited intelligence has been collected and it is not possible to gauge whether we are dealing mainly with systematic criminality perpetrated by individuals and groups operating exclusively in the food chain, or whether organized criminal networks – those already established in activities such as trafficking drugs, cigarettes, fuel, firearms or humans – have moved into food crime.
“Conventional police wisdom suggests that there is no crossover, but intelligence related to food-crime has never been collected systematically.
“I regard this as an unknown that requires urgent attention because of the ease with which money can be made from food fraud. In order to deal with the problem we must know the extent of the problem.”
Elliott proposed a national food crime prevention strategy, making it much more difficult for criminals to operate in food networks by introducing new measures to check, test and investigate any suspicious activity.
“Ultimately, those caught perpetrating criminal activity must be severely punished by the law to send a clear message to those thinking of conducting similar criminal activity not to operate in ‘our space’.
“In order to do this we need new and more rigorous measures of auditing and testing supply networks and a robust system of investigating and prosecuting wrong doers.”
The full report can be read here.