NFCU needs investigative powers to tackle food crime

The UK’s National Food Crime Unit says it needs to add investigative powers to its current intelligence operations if it is to fulfil the remit behind its formation.

Gavan Wafer, head of intelligence at the NFCU, told the Processing & Packaging Machinery Trade Association (PPMA) annual exhibition in Birmingham last week that the way the NFCU operates at the moment is to develop an intelligence package that is then delivered to local authorities which can then pursue a prosecution.

“At the moment we don’t have a mandate to investigate food crime,” he told delegates. But that could be set to change, as last year an independent review – set up after two years of the NFCU’s operations – delivered a strong recommendation that the unit should move into the investigations arena.

At the moment actions against food crime are “low level” and the activity is not being dealt with as robustly as it could, said Wafer, but he said enforcement activity is increasing. Adding investigative powers to the NFCU would mean there is a single, national body that can take on big cases such as the horsemeat scandal, and help local authorities which are under financial pressure and often don’t have the resources to take on what can be expensive fraud investigations without compromising other activities.

“We would like to be in that arena, to support them better, and be able to take on investigations,” he said, telling Securing Industry that it would make sense for the unit to function in a similar way to the investigative arm of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). That would involve a sizeable increase in headcount at the NFCU, however, likely requiring numbers at the unit to increase from around 18 at present to 50-60.

It has become apparent in the first two and a half years of operations that food crime is a challenging law enforcement landscape to be involved in, because the activity and the perpetrators are hard to uncover as the evidence is generally – and quite literally – consumed, he said.

A key focus is on preventing lawful food operators – which tend to be the perpetrators of this type of crime – from sliding into this form of activity when experiencing a tough operating environment.

The NFCU defines food crime as serious dishonesty that could have detrimental consequences on the safety or the authenticity of food – usually for economic gain – but does not extend to broader food safety and hygiene issues.

In contrast, food fraud encompasses less serious incidents involving dishonest acts or omission intended for personal gain or to cause loss to another party. The most common types of food crime encountered can be seen in the table below (document fraud often goes alongside of the other types). It is interesting to note that counterfeiting of food – other than some cases involving spirits such as vodka – is uncommon, according to Wafer. In fact, it is usually easier to make money smuggling alcohol than producing fake bottles, he said.

At the moment, a sizeable chunk of the NFCU's workload is directed at nutritional supplement-type products adulterated with illegal substances, including pharmacologically-active compounds, he told Securing Industry.

In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, the public’s understanding of food crime has been increasing, as is the appetite for something to be done about the problem, Wafer told the PPMA meeting, adding that trend has been accentuated by other recent incidents such as fipronil in eggs.

At the heart of the NFCU’s activities is close collaboration with the food industry, recognising that it is people within the sector that best understand the nature of the problem and where food crime is prevalent. The unit has produced a guide to try to encourage collaboration and reporting of suspected food crime incidents.

He said the NFCU is also working closely with food crime units in other countries, including Norway, the Netherlands, Italy and France among others within Europe, as well as in other areas of the world including the US.

Ultimately, the intention is to prevent this form of crime by creating a “hostile environment” for perpetrators and making it highly likely to have consequences – in much the same way that stringent security measures and reducing the amount of money available to steal have now made bank robberies a rare occurrence, said Wafer.

The PPMA presentation comes shortly after the NFCU achieved its first conviction for food crime.

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