UK public still concerned about food integrity

Adulterated meatA survey conducted by consumer organisation Which has revealed the UK public has little trust in the integrity of the food supply chain.

Sue Davis, chief policy advisor at Which, told the FoodIntegrity 2016 conference in Prague earlier this month that a majority (55 per cent) of those polled are worried that cases of food fraud similar to the 2013 horsemeat scandal could recur.

Meanwhile, almost a third (32 per cent) of respondents lacked confidence that food labels accurately reflect the contents of a product, and 49 per cent said they were not confident that fast food bought at take-away establishments was correctly described.

There have been numerous reports of fish substitution in take-away restaurants, goat's cheese that is found after testing to be made from sheep milk and oregano that is adulterated with other plant material, she said, and these have dented confidence in the food sector.

Some scams leave consumers out of pocket, whilst others can raise real and serious safety issues, and the horsemeat scandal brought the complexity of food supply chains - and the fact that consumers may not be getting what they pay for even from large supermarket chains - to the public's attention.

Complicating the situation is that food policy is “fragmented both at the UK and EU level,” she said, while food law enforcement “is under enormous pressure and in some cases is becoming unsustainable.”

All told, 69 per cent of those surveyed by Which felt that more action needed to be taken to reduce food fraud, said Davis, and almost a quarter (23 per cent) said they had changed their buying behaviour in the prior 12 months because they were worried about fraud.

According to field research undertaken by the consumer organisation, those fears may at least in part be justified. Testing of lamb curry and kebab products being sold at fast food outlets in Birmingham and London - carried out in 2014 - revealed that 53 and 27 per cent respectively were adulterated.

Researchers have found similar activity in Spain and Italy, said Davis, suggesting that this sort of adulteration may be common across Europe.

What is abundantly clear however is that the public is very concerned that the government is not sufficiently active in tackling this type of fraud – almost 60 per cent felt it was not doing enough to enforce food labels.

Despite what appears to be gathering momentum behind the fight against food fraud at the UK and EU level, there remain significant challenges, said Davis.

Government-imposed cuts to the budgets of public authorities such as Trading Standards are causing additional concern. 86 per cent of respondents polled by Which last year said they would be worried if spending cuts led to a reduced frequency of food company inspections, with 81 per cent insisting there should be no reduction in inspection frequency.

"We need to make sure there is an independent system in place that is adequately resourced," she asserted.

The creation of national food crime units in the UK has been a step forward in the context of food fraud detection and enforcement, for example, but this sort of over-arching surveillance remains difficult and there is still a need for a coordinated intelligence-sharing between agencies and national boundaries.

"There is still limited understanding across supply chains and of the true extent of fraud [and] difficulties with sharing of industry data," Davis added, pointing also to weaknesses in food industry supply chain auditing and reporting.

She noted it is also vitally important that the fight against food fraud takes place in the context of a robust legislative framework on aspects such as traceability and inspections.

This is particularly pertinent in light of the planned revisions to the General Food Law Regulation in the UK and the REFIT review of food information and health claim regulations at the EU level.

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