UK food agency seeks greater powers for crimes unit

The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) is seeking comments on a proposal to extend the investigatory powers of the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU).

The public consultation period – which will end on 18 August – comes after a prolonged period in which the NFCU has argued that it needs to add investigative powers to its current largely intelligence-based approach if it is to fulfil the remit behind its formation.

The agency was set up in 2015 in the wake of the horsemeat scandal to tackle serious, organised, or complex cases of crime within food supply chains, with a remit that extends across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, there is separate group set up by Food Standards Scotland.

That covers fraud that could have detrimental consequences on the safety or the authenticity of food – usually for economic gain – and does not generally extend to broader food safety and hygiene issues.

The consultation notes that current food legislation limits the powers available to the NFCU to the enforcement of non-compliance by food business operators, and do not allow it to investigate criminal offences outside of general food law.

The group has some investigatory powers outside food law, but they are generally limited to intelligence collection by covert means and fall short of the powers needed to "perform a fully effective investigatory role into serious food related criminality," it continues.

The proposed powers concern the ability to apply for search warrants, seize evidence and interview suspects who are under arrest.

"The NFCU needs to be able to do its work effectively and efficiently to protect consumers and businesses from food fraud," said FSA chief executive Emily Miles.

"To do this the proposed changes are a crucial/vital tool to make sure that investigations can happen more quickly, while also freeing up local police services so their vital resources can be diverted to other priorities."

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