What is the Food Crime Unit?

Food Law has been in the spotlight since the huge and widely publicised horsemeat scandal a few years ago. It was at this point that consumers called for an increased regulation and prosecution of those who are seen to be responsible for failures in the integrity of the food supply chain.

You will likely recall the scandal involving the appearance of Horse DNA in meat products, ready meals, and school food. The appearance of this resulted in calls for prosecution of food crime known as ‘procurement fraud’.

One of the immediate effects of this scandal was the renewing of the debate on cruel production of food by factory farming, with calls to end the industrial production of meat, fish, and eggs around the world.

Independent Review Following Horsemeat Scandal

Following the public concern over food crime by the appearance of horsemeat in the food supply chain, the government appointed Professor Chris Elliot to lead an independent review into the integrity of food supply networks. The interim report was published on December 12th 2013.

The initial recommendations from the review suggested a systems-based approach to tackling food fraud, recommending a ‘zero tolerance for food fraud where minor dishonesties are discouraged and the response to major dishonesties is punitive’. The review also called for enhanced resilient sustainable laboratory services and clear leadership and coordination of investigations and prosecutions.

Professor Elliot identified a worrying lack of knowledge regarding the extent to which criminal networks have infiltrated the food industry. These networks have begun to see the potential for huge profits with low risks, leaving the food industry and consumers vulnerable. Although he concluded that UK customers have access to perhaps the safest food in the world, the food industry’s own testing for horse DNA identified contamination in 1% of UK samples and over 4% in Europe.

Proposal for New Food Crimes Unit

Following his independent review, Elliot proposed a new Food Crime Unit be created to develop a dedicated staff resource with specialist skills, including:

  • Knowledge of the key food sectors;
  • Regulatory experience, including PACE, intelligence gathering analysis and sharing;
  • Maximising strategic effectiveness within available resources;
  • Undertaking complex regulatory and food crime-related investigations.

This recommendation was taken onboard and The National Food Crime Unit was established in 2015. As explained by the Food Standards Agency, the main objectives of the unit are to:

  • Improve understanding of the food crime threat at a strategic level;
  • Identify specific instances of dishonesty within food supply chains, and to instigate action by others capable of addressing it.

Previous to the horsemeat scandal and creation of the new Food Crime Unit, food crime was arguably low on the agenda of main prosecuting authorities. With this new unit in place, there is a larger focus and more resources to prevent food crime on the scale of the horsemeat scandal from occurring again.

For more information on food legislation and the National Food Crime Unit, take a look at the Food Standard Agency’s informative guide.

At St Pauls, we have barristers specialising in the prosecution and defence of Food Safety offences, in particular Weight and Measures, Packaged Goods Regulations, and the Defence of Due Diligence. Get in touch for support with food crime cases.

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