More powers needed for UK's food crime unit

The new National Food Crime Unit should have investigative capacity "with teeth" to tackle food crime and fraud, and fill the gap where local authorities are struggling to cope, a review recommends.

The review by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) assessed the operations of the NFCU, which was set up at the end of 2014 in the wake of the horsemeat food scandal to support enforcement activities by local authorities and police.

The review concluded that the current response to food crime in the UK was "inadequate" and recommended that the NFCU be given investigative powers.

Food crime is estimated to lose the UK economy £6bn per annum, the review stated.

Currently, responsibility for preventing and disrupting food crime in the UK rests with local authorities, with most activity being reactive with varying degrees of financial, tactical and strategic support by the NFCU. The FSA monitors and reports on the local authorities' performance.

However, according to the findings of the review there are issues affecting local authorities' enforcement response to food crime. Issues included: lack of training in intelligence gathering and fraud investigation; lack of specialist skills and resources; and competing demands limiting authorities' ability to absorb the legal costs of investigations. Furthermore, the review said there was a lack of co-ordination across authority boundaries leading to a "haphazard" approach to dealing with food crime.

Meanwhile, these issues have been made starker in a separate report by the FSA recently, which published local authority statistics on food law enforcement for the year 2015/16. The report revealed that although figures showed enforcement activity was increasing, there was a 6% drop in the number of local authority enforcement staff compared with the previous year.

Back in January, the FSA voiced "growing concern" that local authorities were struggling to maintain resources and expertise in tackling food crime and warned of a possible impact if budgets were further curtailed. At the time, it said the numbers of food law enforcement staff were down 17%.

Based on local authority concerns the review recommended that there was a need "for an NFCU which has a clear, national strategic co-ordinating role in investigations" and should have investigative capacity "with teeth" to tackle food crime, protect consumers and the legitimate supply chain, and have a sufficient deterrent effect.

"Local authority and law enforcement partners thought that an NFCU with investigative capacity would fill an important gap in the food law enforcement landscape, and provide strategic, professional leadership on a specialist area of criminal law enforcement," the review said.

Furthermore, while the NFCU had built expertise in intelligence gathering, the review noted there was no investigative capacity to match the intelligence function, stating that "much of the work of the NFCU is currently wasted", especially as there were cases where intelligence from the NFCU was not taken forward by police because of competing local priorities.

"To successfully tackle food crime, a proactive approach is required that is absent at the moment," the review said. "Criminals do not have regard to boundaries of any kind. Whilst local authorities might be able to co-operate on regulatory offences straddling multiple local authority areas, there can be no meaningful co-operation in the prevention and investigation of true cross border crime. This failing leaves consumers and the legitimate food supply chain at risk. The NFCU must in future be resourced to provide national strategic leadership on the prevention and investigation of food crime."

The review also recommended the NFCU be made an arm's length body of the FSA.

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