Recent figures have shown that food unfit for human consumption is increasingly being offered for sale, food crime having risen to its highest level since the 2013 horsemeat scandal. So how can food businesses spot this worrying crime, especially during a time of major change like Brexit? Vicky Powell highlights the current expert advice on preventing food fraud in supply chains.

Food crime: where are we now?

Food crime can include various activities, from the deliberate mislabelling of a product to the fraudulent substitution of an ingredient for a cheaper, and even potentially unsafe alternative.

A freedom of information request by the Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS) to the Food Crime Unit of the Food Standards Agency recently revealed alarming new trends.

  • Almost 7000 (6970) reports of food crime were recorded in the Food Crime Intelligence database between 1 January 2013 and 31 March 2019.

  • 1193 of these were made in 2018, the highest level since 2013.

  • There were 364 reports of food crime in the first three months of 2019 alone.

In short, CIPS has warned, reports of food crime have returned to levels last seen around the time of the horsemeat scandal.

The problem of course is that food crime is notoriously difficult for businesses to identify, often occurring several tiers down their supply chain and in countries far away from the end consumer.

Malcolm Harrison, Group CEO at CIPS, described some of the current challenges associated with food crime.

He said, “Modern food supply chains are long, complicated and frequently change. Spotting risks in our food supply chains before they become problems requires constant vigilance, especially in times of change. Questioning, knowing and not blindly accepting where food products come from is key.

“Businesses must ensure that supply chains are transparent and that goods can be tracked from their source. It is important to visit suppliers and introduce regular quality and compliance checks to ensure sound international supply chain practices.”

Worryingly, according to CIPS, the most common food crime reported to the database since 2016 is the “knowing sale of food substances not suitable for human consumption”, a practice that could have serious consequences for public health.

Across 2018 there were 310 reported cases in this category, a steep jump from the previous year, when only 73 cases were reported. In fact, nearly a third (32%) of food crime reports made this year fall under this classification.

Analysing the figures, the Food Standards Agency, as the regulatory body ultimately responsible for tracking the reports, notes that fluctuations in the number of reports may be due to external factors.

These factors could include awareness of the National Food Crime Unit and its reporting facility, while some crimes may be reported several times. The reported incidents will also not all be of the same magnitude.

Types of food crime

In the UK, the Food Standards Agency has indicated that supply chains are being targeted by more than 20 organised crime groups, out to maximise their profits without any regard for public health.

Foods at particular risk of fraudsters include alcohol, olive oil, meat and honey, with previous reports of fake branded vodka containing dangerous levels of alcohol, pet food meat being passed off as fit for human consumption and olive oil containing additives and colourants.

The Agency’s National Food Crime Unit has highlighted seven major food crimes that pose a criminal threat to the supply chains of the UK's £200 billion food and drink industry, as follows.

  • Theft: dishonestly appropriating food, drink or feed products in order to profit from their use or sale.

  • Unlawful processing: slaughtering or preparing meat and related products in unapproved premises or using unauthorised techniques.

  • Waste diversion: illicitly diverting food, drink or feed meant for disposal back into the supply chain.

  • Adulteration: reducing the quality of food by including a foreign substance, in order to lower costs or fake a higher quality.

  • Substitution: replacing a food or ingredient with another substance that is similar but inferior.

  • Misrepresentation: marketing or labelling a product to wrongly portray its quality, safety, origin or freshness.

  • Document fraud: falsely or fraudulently using genuine documents to sell, market or otherwise vouch for a fraudulent or substandard product.

Commenting on the offences, Andy Morling, Head of Food Crime at the FSA, said, “If we can understand how food crime manifests itself, we can apply this knowledge across a range of food sectors to prioritise risks. Focusing on the ways in which food crime is perpetrated, rather than thinking about it on a ‘commodity by commodity’ basis, will help us to identify previously undiscovered fraudulent behaviour and highlight vulnerabilities before they are exploited by fraudsters”.

Top tips for tackling food fraud

During a period of national change, with Brexit on the horizon at the time of writing, experts have urged the food industry, from manufacturers and retailers to hospitality businesses of all sizes, to use their collective power and influence to tackle food fraud.

The latest Food Fraud Report, by the insurance agency NFU Mutual, in association with the British Retail Consortium, the Food and Drink Federation, the British Hospitality Association and the National Farmers’ Retail & Markets Association (FARMA), argues that it is increasingly important for products and outlets to build consumer trust and reassurance into the very fabric of their values.

By promoting fraud prevention measures, the report notes, businesses in the food industry could gain an edge in winning both consumer confidence and loyalty.

The report offers the following top tips for preventing food fraud and enhancing consumer trust in supply chains.

  1. Keep on top of information about the threat of fraud, Brexit and other challenges facing the industry to ensure you are equipped to manage any concerns — guidance can be obtained from the Food Standards Agency and the National Food Crime Unit.

  2. Implement awareness and prevention programmes across the employee network, right through to customer-facing level.

  3. Know your suppliers and make sure they have a comprehensive food defence strategy by asking to see their supply chain vulnerability assessments.

  4. Regularly test supplier and final products if possible.

  5. Ensure you have access to the right advice and expertise to develop a food safety system based on Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) principles, that keeps people safe.

  6. Comprehensive auditing is essential to combat food fraud but also to comply with the Food Safety Act 1990 and the European Commission’s General Food Law Regulation.

  7. Consider joining an accreditation service to help provide assurance to customers about the origin of your food.

  8. Consider supporting British produce to help manage and shrink your own supply chain and win the hearts of customers.

  9. Ensure that packaging is of good quality, is clear and transparent with regards to ingredients, and is without unsubstantiated claims.

  10. Consider investing in corporate social responsibility or community, sustainability and charity programmes to enhance customer trust and loyalty.

The future for food supply chains

With food fraud estimated to be losing the food and drink industry up to £12 billion annually, and in the face of rising numbers of fraud reports, there are those in the industry who are calling for heightened police and regulatory action on food fraud.

CIPS CEO Malcolm Harrison, said, “As a society we are not willing to compromise on the quality, origin and ethical sourcing of our food. However, as these figures show, potentially harmful substances are still finding their way into our food supply chains and potentially onto store shelves.

“It is surprising, therefore, that while the number of reports of food crime continues to rise, prosecutions remain stubbornly low. Food fraudsters put lives at risk in order to bolster their profits; it is time for criminal prosecutions to rise.”

Last reviewed 18 November 2019