Last reviewed 9 November 2015

The National Food Crime Unit was established at the end of 2014 in the wake of the UK’s horsemeat scandal. Its aim is to protect consumers from food and drink that is either unsafe or fraudulently offered for sale due to criminal activity. Vicky Powell examines the work of the new Unit and asks whether Britain is winning the battle on food crime.

Recognising food crime

At the beginning of 2013, the UK’s food industry was rocked by one if its most serious crises. It had emerged that British supermarkets and caterers were supplying meat products such as burgers, lasagne and cottage pie that contained horse DNA. The issue was largely seen as a food fraud, rather than a food safety, issue — although safety concerns were raised about the horse drug “bute”, and the potential for it having entered the human food chain, given that the drug is banned for human use in Britain and the USA.

In response to the scandal, the Government-appointed Professor Chris Elliott, a leading food safety academic from Belfast’s Queen’s University, to chair a review into the integrity and assurance of the nation’s food supply networks.

Over a year after the crisis, the Elliot Review, published in July 2014, highlighted a wide range of inadequacies in the current system for ensuring the food chain is honest and assured.

The report warned that UK consumers were at risk from serious organised crime because of little investigation or prosecution of food crimes, thus offering a “huge incentive for the criminal to pursue food crime”.

The report further warned that food crime was at risk of systematic proliferation if left unchecked and called for a food crime unit with full police powers and expertise to be set up as a priority.

This view was endorsed by the international police organisation, Interpol, which warned of international gangs diversifying elements of their operations from drug trafficking and armed robbery into fraudulent foods.

Michael Ellis, Assistant Director of Interpol, told the BBC, “Criminals have realised that they can make the same amount of money by dealing with counterfeit food. Invariably the sentences are much lighter.”

The National Food Crime Unit

At the end of 2014, acting on the recommendations of the Elliot Review, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) launched the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) with the aim of protecting consumers from food and drink that is either unsafe or not authentic because of serious criminal activity.

Asked for comment on the activities of NFCU to this point, for this article, an FSA spokesperson said, “Since the NFCU was established in December, the FSA has been putting in place the structures, processes and relationships necessary for the unit to contribute to tackling serious criminality within UK food supply networks. As recommended in Professor Elliott's review last year, the unit's main focus in 2015 has been on understanding the nature and dimensions of the threat to UK businesses and consumers from food crime. Information and intelligence has been gathered from across national and local government, the food industry and law enforcement for this purpose. The analysis of these data is on-going and we will publish the enhanced picture of the threat this gives us at the end of the year.”

The spokesperson added, “Understandably we cannot go into detail on operational activity, as this could affect our current investigations. However, the NFCU is exploring a number of areas where criminality is suspected to be taking place.”

Areas of focus

One key area of focus for the NFCU is the illegal sale of deadly diet pills, containing dinitrophenol (DNP). The pills received widespread media attention following the death in April 2015 of a young woman, Eloise Parry, from Shrewsbury in Shropshire.

On this subject, the FSA spokesperson said, “The unit has taken the lead in tackling the illegal sale of DNP for human consumption. DNP is a toxic industrial chemical sold illegally as a dietary supplement and has been implicated in the deaths of at least five young people in the UK this year. So in food crime terms, it doesn't get much more serious than that.”

The Unit ran a successful deterrence campaign in the summer, highlighting the fact that such pills can be fatal at any dosage and is also currently working to take down numerous websites offering DNP for sale whilst another focus is on tackling the criminals believed to be distributing the product, through gyms and other outlets.

The FSA has also published a database of local authority and FSA food law prosecution outcomes so far for 2015/16, which highlight the types of crime currently being tackled by the authorities.

As an example, the database includes the case of Lionheart Marketing, which was selling sausages, burgers and bacon purporting to be ostrich, goat and wild boar but in fact made of other meat products such as chicken and pork. The products were fraudulently labelled and also produced in unhygienic conditions. The two defendants in the case, Darren Jinks and Sarah Beckett, admitted breaches under the Fraud Act 2006 and the Food Safety and Hygiene (England) Regulations 2013, receiving, respectively, a suspended prison sentence and a conditional discharge.

Another recent high profile case related to the horse meat scandal of 2013. In March 2015, Peter Boddy was fined £8000 at Southwark Crown Court after he admitted failing to comply with food traceability regulations while running a slaughterhouse in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. He had admitted to selling horses for meat but failed to keep proper records to show who bought them. The manager of the slaughterhouse, David Moss, was given a four-month suspended prison sentence for falsifying an invoice.

The Unit also recently confirmed in a report to the FSA Board that other major areas of focus at present include wine fraud and fake vodka. Company identity theft is another concern, with one report of a supplier of a meat producer being targeted –money was transferred for a meat order but the product never arrived due to an apparent fraudulent direction for delivery to a different address.

A warning on complacency

The above cases illustrate some of the many ways in which the integrity of food supply networks can be compromised. In this regard, Professor Chris Elliott recently described the horsemeat scandal of 2013 as “a wake-up call for the UK”.

Speaking at a food fraud conference hosted in Doncaster in September 2015 by an examination board, the Highfield Awarding Body for Compliance (HABC), Professor Elliott issued a stark warning to the food industry against complacency.

He pointed out that while there was no direct evidence of a threat to public health in the horsemeat scandal, there have been food fraud scandals in other countries that have affected thousands — and in some cases hundreds of thousands — of people.

For example, he said, “In China in 2008, over 300,000 infants were made ill by adulterated milk, with six sadly dying. With organised gangs becoming attracted into food fraud, we must act now to prevent public health threats… Wherever there is money to be made — and the sums involved in food fraud are in the billions —criminals will find a way.”