UK’s FSA mulls more power for food crime unit

The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has launched a public consultation on a plan to give greater enforcement powers to the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU).

The consultation centres on search and entry powers, which would reduce the NFCU’s reliance on other agencies such as local authorities’ Trading Standards teams and the police.

The unit 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 a separate unit operated by Food Standards Scotland, while in Northern Ireland separate legislation governing investigatory powers applies and the FSA said it plans to launch a consultation there shortly.

The unit concentrates on fraud that could have detrimental consequences on the safety or the authenticity of food – usually for economic gain – and does not generally focus on broader food safety and hygiene issues.

It has long argued that it needs to add more investigative powers to its original intelligence-based function, so it can investigate criminal offences more effectively.

Last year, the unit secured broad support for proposals to give its operatives the ability to apply for search warrants, seize evidence and interview suspects who are under arrest. Now, FSA wants to extend that to include section 18 powers of search and entry after a suspect has already been arrested.

That would be possible without a warrant where there were “reasonable grounds to suspect that there is evidence on the premises relating to that offence, or to a related offence,” according to the agency.

The consultation is open until August 6, according to the FSA, which said the changes are “critical” if the NFCU is to “investigate food crime effectively, with autonomy and independence.”

“If the NFCU [is] granted section 18 powers of search and entry, while a police presence is still likely to be needed in case arrests are required, this would be much smaller,” it added.

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