21 December 2013

Food Crime

The UK Government has released the interim 'food crime' report [PDF], ie the review by Professor Chris Elliott into the 'Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks' following revelations of horsemeat lasagna and other delights. (One of my more appreciative students has of course asked about kitten pie.)

Elliott comments that
This review was prompted by growing concerns about the systems used to deter, identify and prosecute food adulteration. The ‘horse meat crisis’ of 2013 was an obvious trigger, but so too were concerns about the increasing potential for food fraud, which I will refer to as ‘food crime’, in many instances due to the complex, widespread and organised nature of these activities nationally and internationally. These incidents can have a huge negative impact on both consumer confidence about the food they eat, and on the reputation and finances of food businesses.
I was asked to take evidence from the widest range of views and interests and issued a call for evidence in June 2013. ... With the help of a small but excellent team of subject matter experts, (see Annex B) I have taken a systems approach in making recommendations on how to make it much more difficult for criminals to operate in food supply networks and thus provide the UK consumer with safer and more authentic food.  ...
UK consumers have access to perhaps the safest food in the world and all those involved in supplying food and for developing and enforcing legislation should be commended for what has been achieved. However, our focus now urgently needs to turn to tackling food crime. Due to very limited intelligence it is hard to gauge the scale of this in our food supply chains. Estimates of the extent of criminality in food provision vary widely. In the UK we don’t know the scope or extent of the problem. Data collection and well structured surveys should be considered as a matter of urgency to fill in this knowledge gap. The food industry’s own testing for horse DNA earlier this year identified contamination in 1% of UK samples and over 4% in Europe.
Food crime is a global problem and not one which impacts on the UK alone. The UK food and beverage market (including food drink and catering) in 2012 was estimated by Defra to be worth £188bn, so the cost of criminal activity may be substantial. 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 (i.e. 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.
Food crime is an emerging issue for all of Europe and The European Commission has taken a proactive stance by establishing a new food fraud unit within DG SANCO. The recent award of substantial research funding via a Framework 7 project on ‘Food Integrity’ with the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) as co-ordinators will play a major role in the harmonisation of European efforts to combat food crime.
As I have taken a systems approach to ensuring the integrity and assurance of food supply networks it means no one part of the report can stand alone: my recommendations are interdependent, and based on the acceptance of the principles and characteristics set out below, of an approach that would support public confidence that those responsible for food supply networks are paying adequate regard to integrity and assurance. ...
The systems approach I have recommended is intended to provide a framework to allow the development of 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.
This interim report deals with each of these elements in turn, describing each of the elements of the systems approach, why I believe they are important, the problems which I believe exist and the extent to which there is capacity to improve the application of existing resource where it is or could be shared.
For each element of this systems approach there are clear roles and responsibilities for Government and industry. There is no single method of assuring the integrity of our food and my recommendations are directed at industry, regulators, enforcement bodies and consumers accordingly. Some of my proposals will require a change of culture within the industry and the Food Standards Agency so that they can work better together to protect consumers. I believe, however, that a new approach to tackle food crime as set out in this interim report will benefit industry by supporting and protecting the vast majority who are committed to complying with the law.
My systems approach comprises the following characteristics:
Consumers First - Industry, government and enforcement agencies should, as a precautionary principle, always put the needs of consumers above all other considerations, and this means giving food safety and food crime prevention – i.e. the deterrence of dishonest behaviour – absolute priority over other objectives. In this section of the report I seek to provide an overview of food crime and present my view on the importance of consumer confidence. Whilst identifying best practice, I recommend that all parties involved in the governance of the food chain should prioritise consumer confidence in the food they eat over all other aims; food crime prevention must be the primary focus (see R1 and 2)
Zero Tolerance - In sectors where margins are tight and the potential for fraud is high, even minor dishonesties must be discouraged and the response to major dishonesties deliberately punitive. My recommendations in this section focus on the actions industry can take to ensure that ‘casual dishonesty’ is discouraged and how their individual businesses practices and culture can be adapted to prevent and protect against food crime (see R3-9).
Intelligence Gathering - There needs to be shared investment between Government and industry in intelligence gathering and sharing, although to ensure its effectiveness all organisations must have regard to the sensitivities of the market. Here I set out what I consider to be the essential requirements of effective intelligence gathering and dissemination mechanisms; there is a role for both regulators and industry to have their own intelligence services and more action needs to be taken to ensure they derive the maximum benefit from one another (see R10-18).
Laboratory Services - Those involved with audit, inspection and enforcement must have access to resilient, sustainable laboratory services that use standardised, validated methodologies. My recommendations in this section focus on two areas; first ensuring that all food authenticity testing follows standardised procedures, using recognised, validated methodologies, and secondly creating a robust, sustainable public sector laboratory system that can be considered to be a national asset (see R19-23).
Audit - Industry and regulators must give weight to audit and assurance regimes, so as to allow credit where it is due; but also try to minimise duplication where possible. Audits of food supplies by producers, storage facilities, processors and retailers are undertaken both routinely and randomly. In this section I set out the key changes that I believe need to be made to audits in order to make them more effective, less burdensome and ultimately more focused on preventing food crime (see R24-35).
Government Support - Government support for the integrity and assurance of food supply networks is kept specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely (SMART). Here my recommendations focus on the Government bodies that I believe have a key role in the prevention and protection of food crime. I call for better partnership working between Government departments and a more robust FSA, still independent but with greater connectivity to Ministers. I also set out my views on why I think that it is necessary, to bring back the Food Authenticity Programme into the FSA whilst Defra retain policy of Country of Origin Labelling and other competitiveness based labelling policy, such as Product of Designated Origin (see R36-40).
Leadership - There is clear leadership and coordination of investigations and prosecutions; and the public interest is recognised in active enforcement and significant penalties for significant food crimes. My recommendations in this section set out the fundamental principles for establishing a dedicated Food Crime Unit, hosted within the FSA, which I believe to be necessary in order to develop the necessary expertise in order to undertake investigations in what may be serious organised crime (see R41-43).
Crisis Management - When a serious incident occurs the necessary mechanisms are in place so that regulators and industry can deal with it effectively. My final section focuses on the measures that need to be taken in order to ensure clarity of roles and responsibilities in the event of a food crisis and makes recommendations as to how these can be achieved (see R44-48).