Organised gangs ‘do not play a big part in UK food crime’

While many forms of illicit trade have strong links to organised crime, this is not the case in food crime, says a senior UK enforcement official.

Gavan Wafer, head of intelligence at the National Food Crime Unit, says that in the two and a half years since the NFCU was set up there has been no firm evidence for a link, with most food crime perpetrated by legitimate food businesses which – for one reason or another – have fallen on hard times and start to cut corners to preserve profits.

“Organised crime is not prevalent in the UK food market,” Wafer told delegates at the Processing & Packaging Machinery Trade Association (PPMA) annual exhibition in Birmingham last week. Rather it tends to be businesses facing a market downturn or some other factor that start “to introduce procedures and practices that lead them towards food crime.”

“It’s less crime people becoming involved in food than food people becoming involved in crime,” said Wafer. However, he noted that there are a few examples where organised crime is a factor, notably in the area of illicit and counterfeit alcohol, doorstep selling of certain products such as fish, and illegal shellfish harvesting.

"The first time food companies get involved in this activity they will have a mental wall to get over, rationalising the decision," said Wafer. If they get away with no comeback from the police or local authorities, that wall "will be a bit lower and thinner" and in time criminality can become a big part of their business, he added.

In fact some people involved in the activity don't event see it as a crime, perhaps because there is no specific offence on the statute, with prosecutions under food safety and hygiene legislation, he said. The aim is to bring many more prosecutions under the 2006 Fraud Act with much greater sanctions and the possibility of seizing assets under the Proceeds of Crime Act.

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