FSA beefs up food fraud defences

The regulator wants to see better sharing of information and intelligence following a major investigation into meat fraud within the UK food chain. Nick Hughes reports.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is hoping new anti-fraud measures will protect the public against “rogue actors and criminal activity” within the food supply chain. These include better mechanisms for sharing intelligence with businesses, a stronger role for third-party audits in information sharing and the creation of a single whistle-blowing hotline.

The regulator has taken action following the revelation that country of origin fraud in meat products is alleged to have been taking place on an industrial scale over recent years. Farmers Weekly originally broke the story that a food supplier is suspected of passing off large quantities of foreign pork as British with the meat destined for both retail and foodservice supply chains. The FSA has confirmed its investigation also includes possible hygiene issues at the same supplier, which can’t be named for legal reasons.

FSA chief executive Emily Miles recently convened a meeting with the food industry to look at where the current system could be further strengthened to protect against rogue actors and criminal activity. The result was agreement to review the scope for a single telephone number or website that whistle-blowers can contact to report concerns about food businesses (there are currently multiple telephone lines run by industry bodies, as well as one run by the FSA). The FSA will also work with businesses and trade bodies to see how to strengthen the role that third-party audits – those carried out independently by retailers and foodservice operators – can play in passing on information to regulators to help prevent food fraud. Finally, the agency plans to review the best format and mechanism for sharing intelligence-based alerts so it can better warn businesses about problems in supply chains.

Experts have been warning for some time that the UK is at risk from food fraud due to a cocktail of challenges – some of which are shared by other nations and some of which are unique to the UK. Sky high levels of commodity price inflation; cuts to local authority enforcement capabilities; the war in Ukraine; and Brexit have coalesced to create an ideal set of conditions for criminals to exploit.

Professor Chris Elliott, who led the independent government review into the 2013 horsemeat scandal, welcomed the new FSA proposals as “good news for consumers and bad news for criminals”. Elliott had previously told Footprintthat he believes the UK is becoming “a dumping ground” for trans-European shipments of fraudulent food. It followed the discovery in October 2022 of 2.4 tonnes of illegal pork contained within lorries arriving at Dover from Romania, Moldova, Ukraine and Poland.

After several false starts, the government finally plans to introduce risk-based border checks on food products from the autumn. A staged approach will begin in October with the requirement for health certification for higher risk imported food and feed from the EU; it will then move onto physical risk-based checks based on the food safety risk posed to consumers. In effect, this means relatively low levels of friction for importers of foods like fruit and vegetables and much greater friction for importers of higher risk products such as meat, fish and dairy.

The new regime should go some way to cooling what Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, recently described as “simmering resentment about the embedded unfairness of our post-Brexit food economy” in which “UK-based food exporters have since January 1st 2021 faced the full weight of sanitary and phytosanitary controls when sending goods to the EU, whilst EU-based food producers can compete for UK customers without these burdens”.

In a blog for the UK in a Changing Europe network, Brennan wrote it was good that “importers of low-risk goods will have to do less certification and face low to zero inspections at the UK border”, however overall he said the new regime “will make things a lot harder, slower, and more expensive. The result will be fewer choices on the shelf and higher food prices than there would otherwise be.”

With foodservice price inflation still running at over 20%, according to the latest CGA Prestige foodservice price index, businesses could be forgiven for viewing the risk of fraud as just another in a long line of adversities to be overcome.

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