A new police force should be created to combat fraud in the food supply chain because the risk of criminal activity is so great, according to an independent inquiry launched in the wake of the horsemeat scandal.
Prof Chris Elliott, the inquiry chairman, warned that the sector is a “soft touch” for criminals who know there is little risk of detection or serious penalty, that the Food Standards Agency is insufficiently robust, and that the industry’s audits are inadequate to detect food crime.
So uncompromising was Elliott’s independent review of the integrity of the food network that its conclusions have led to tensions with the government. Owen Paterson, the environment secretary, and the food industry chose instead to concentrate on Elliott’s finding that the UK food system is one of the safest in the world in terms of hygiene.
But Elliott says they are so focused on this aspect of food safety that they have failed to understand how serious the risk is from criminal activity. He also called for urgent investigation into whether these groups also cross over to networks already established in trafficking drugs, cigarettes, fuel, firearms or people.
The new food crime unit, the Elliott review concluded, should be set up as a non-Home Office police force.
The report also highlights several types of food that need to be priorities for intelligence gathering about possible criminal activity:
• One supplier of meat products who describes a retailer asking him to produce a “gourmet burger” for an unrealistic unit price of under 30p. The supplier believed that by using the cheapest beef available from older cows and factoring in fixed costs, the lowest possible unit price would be 59p. The ways a supplier might meet the unrealistic price specified would be to switch to meat from premises not approved by the EU, or to add in offal, such as heart or mechanically separated meats.
• Fish is particularly vulnerable to several forms of fraud through substitution, relabelling and adulteration.
• Premium products whose sales appear to outstrip the market supply, such as New Zealand manuka honey, whose UK sales alone outstrip total global output, and pomegranate juice, marketed as “superfruit”, an explosion in sales of which appears to outstrip the time it would take to grow trees to produce it.
• Products with complex production chains, such as Spanish olive oil that is bottled in Italy, or products where premiums can be charged for specific provenance, such as Aberdeen Angus burgers.
The Elliott report also raises concerns within the industry that a significant amount of meat that has been condemned for rendering because of its potential to cause disease is being recycled as meat eligible for pet food.
The team separately heard of a previous case in which pet food was recycled into the human food chain. Both the industry and the government need to acknowledge the risks of meat that is not fit for human consumption entering the human supply chain, Elliott warns.
Aggressive supermarket buying practices are also singled out for criticism as well as “too good to be true” cheap offers. Elliott recommends that they and other sellers should be held criminally liable if they sell mislabelled meat to consumers, so putting the onus on them to check their suppliers.
If retailers buy consistently below the market price, the inquiry argues that they should have to prove not just that they have a paper trail but that they have checked there are no grounds to suspect the goods are counterfeit or “criminal property” – or risk being guilty of complicity in crime.
In sharp criticism of the lack of prosecutions for horsemeat and the inadequacy of current sanctions, the report says anyone selling meat that is mislabelled should be considered criminally liable.