Analysis: Industry must speak out against supply chain sinners

It’s a little over three years since the horsemeat scandal sent shockwaves through the food industry. But for all that ‘horsegate’ did to raise awareness of food crime, are businesses really doing everything they can to help stamp out deliberate acts of substitution and adulteration?

In March, the Food Standards Agency published its first ever assessment of food crime in the UK. The research was carried out by the FSA’s new National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) and identified a wide range of vulnerabilities and risks across the food industry.

The section on ‘Information sources and limitations’ makes for especially worrying reading. It notes that a call for information on food crime returned submissions from police forces, local authorities and industry trade bodies that were “quite anecdotal or generic in their observations” and “varied significantly in terms of quality and quantity”.

Significantly, the report states that information sharing with industry “is in its early stages” and that the Unit’s analysis of food crime “would be greatly enhanced by the inclusion of both broad and more specific information” from businesses.

In short, the industry is not doing enough to help the NFCU do its job.

And whilst its true to say that a number of initiatives are underway to develop so-called ‘safe spaces’ where businesses can share testing data and other suspicions of criminal activity in an anonymised form, there clearly remains a reluctance within the food industry to pass information on to the regulator.

If NFCU head Andy Morling wants a shoulder to cry on he could do worse than ask the Groceries Code Adjudicator, Christine Tacon, who has encountered similar reticence among businesses to speak out against those engaged in unfair supply chain practices. In both instances, the inertia points to scepticism among industry that public bodies can be trusted to use sensitive information in a responsible way for fear of recrimination.

The NFCU acknowledges that the law enforcement community has a key role to play in detecting and preventing food crime, but is uncompromising in its assertion that “the primary responsibility rests with the food industry”.

Speaking to Footprint in October last year, Professor Chris Elliott, who authored the Government report into the horsemeat scandal, was clear in his belief that the foodservice sector is a target for criminals and that every link in the chain is a potential vulnerability.

Businesses that shy away from reporting their suspicions will only have themselves to blame when the next food crime scandal erupts.

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