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Focus on food crime

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IT is not surprising, given the furore that accompanied the horsemeat in ‘beef’ products scandal of 2013, that media coverage of Professor Chris Elliott's report on the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks, which was published last week,1 should have focused so heavily on the report's recommendation for a new Food Crime Unit. When the horsemeat scandal erupted in January 2013, politicians and others were quick to blame organised crime and criminal gangs, although it is notable that, more than 18 months later, few prosecutions have been brought.

The report was commissioned by Owen Paterson, then secretary of state at Defra, in June last year, who asked Professor Elliott, of Queen's University Belfast, to advise ministers on issues ‘which impact on consumer confidence in the authenticity of food products, including any systematic failures in food supply networks and systems of oversight with implications for food safety and public health’ (VR, July 6, 2013, vol 173, p 2). The development of a Food Crime Unit, as part of a wider food crime prevention framework, is, in fact, a key recommendation of Professor Elliott's review. However, it is just one of many, and his report makes clear that there is much more to assuring food standards and maintaining consumer confidence than simply setting up a new unit. The focus on crime may be justified, but there is a need to look beyond that.

Professor Elliott's review was not the only one commissioned on the back of the horsemeat scandal. Others have suggested that confusion about roles and responsibilities as a result of changes in the remit of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) following the Government's review of its arm's length bodies in 2010, and the fact that this was seen as an authenticity issue, rather than a food safety issue, could have initially resulted in ‘some hesitancy’ on the part of the agency to act (VR, October 26, 2013, vol 173, p 380). Professor Elliott's report, perhaps wisely, avoids making such direct judgements, although, discussing crisis management, it does recommend that, in future, the Government should ensure that all incidents are regarded in the first instance as potential risks to public health, until there is evidence to the contrary.

In making recommendations, Professor Elliott takes what he describes as ‘a systems based approach, based on eight pillars of food integrity’. The result, he suggests, should be a robust system that ‘puts the needs of consumers before all others; adopts a zero tolerance approach to food crime; invests in intelligence gathering and sharing; supports resilient laboratory services that use standardised, validated methodologies; improves the efficiency and quality of audits and more actively investigates and tackles food crime; acknowledges the key role that Government has to play in supporting industry; and reinforces the need for strong leadership and effective crisis management’.

The report makes detailed recommendations in each of these areas. Although it does not pull its punches in highlighting the responsibilities of Government, it also makes clear that implementing an effective framework is not just a matter for Government, and will require a partnership approach between Government, regulators and industry.

While highlighting the potential for food crime and the need to take firm action to prevent it, the report also points out that the extent of the problem in the UK is unknown. UK consumers may have access to what it describes as ‘perhaps the safest food in the world’ but, it says, there is no room for complacency. It argues that data collection and well-structured surveys are needed to fill the current ‘knowledge gap’, noting that experience in other countries has suggested that, wherever there has been a systematic approach to looking for food crime, evidence has quickly been uncovered.

The report makes some interesting observations about the complexity of modern food chains and the constant drive to maximise profits while keeping food prices down. It suggests that competitive procurement practices and pressure on suppliers could be a potential driver for food crime and that, in sourcing products, the food industry should be encouraged to ask itself whether certain deals are ‘too good to be true’.

It makes some useful points, too, about the need for a strong laboratory service to underpin systems of audit, inspection and enforcement. Official laboratories serving the public sector are, it says, ‘showing clear signs of strain’, with the number of public sector Public Analyst laboratories having been reduced from 10 to six since 2010, and it urges the Government to bring the remaining laboratories together to form a merged, shared service. Discussing the role of local authorities in relation to enforcement, it notes that there was a 27 per cent reduction in the number of trading standards officers dealing with food matters in post in County Councils between 2009 and 2013, and that ‘enforcement activity is very vulnerable when local authority services are cut to the bone’. Emphasising the key role of the FSA in relation to protecting consumers and helping to maintain confidence, it calls on the Government to ‘reaffirm its commitment to an independent FSA’.

The Government has accepted the key principles set out in Professor Elliott's report and says it is already acting on some of the recommendations. In doing so, it must ensure that the infrastructure needed to support the plans is adequately resourced. It remains disheartening that, 15 years after the FSA was established to restore confidence in the food chain after the BSE and other food scares of the 1980s/90s, the process of building confidence has to begin again.

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