Horsemeat scandal prompts new food fraud unit in UK

HorsemeatA specialist police unit to tackle food crime has been set up in the UK on the recommendations of a report drawn up in response to last year's horsemeat scandal.

The Food Crime Unit (FCU) will "strengthen consumer confidence in Britain's high quality food" and is one of a series of improvements the government is making to help shore up the supply chain, said Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss.

The move comes after the publication today of the delayed Elliott report, which calls for a national food crime prevention network with government, regulators and industry working together to protect public health.

The FCU will form the cornerstone of that effort and should be set up without delay because there is a lack of concerted investigation of this type of crime by enforcement authorities, which in turn provides a "huge incentive for the criminal," says Professor Chris Elliott, a food safety academic from Belfast University.

The Government - in its response to the report- indicates that the unit will be set up by the end of 2014.

Other measures include the introduction of new country-of-origin labelling - due to come into force next April - a new strategy to try to improve the food analytical laboratory network which is described as 'fragile' by Elliott, and an information-sharing hub between government and industry.

"A food crime unit is urgently needed to protect our food industry and consumers from criminal activity, but it will repay investment by protecting the majority of businesses who work hard to provide safe and authentic food for UK consumers," says the report.

The report estimates it will cost around £4m a year to run and could be modelled on a similar unit set up by the government in the Netherlands. The Dutch authorities conducted 24 major investigations into food crime in 2012, seizing €6.5m in criminal assets.

Elliott identifies what he calls eight pillars of food integrity - consumers first; zero tolerance; intelligence gathering; laboratory services; audits; government support; leadership; and crisis management - for a national food crime prevention framework.

Government comes in for a fair bit of criticism in the report, with Elliott suggesting budget cuts have hamstrung the laboratory service - which has shrunk from 10 to six labs since 2010 - and relying on the private sector to plug the gap is not advisable because of differing priorities.

Trading Standards has also been hit by local budget cuts which are impacting their ability to protect consumers from fraud, and the current system of audits for supermarkets, food producers and distributors is both cumbersome and expensive and should be replaced by unannounced inspections.

"All of the recommendations in the Elliott report on food integrity and assurance of food supply networks have been accepted by the government," said Truss.

"We’re taking action to make sure that families can have absolute confidence in the food that they buy."

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