Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Food crime on 'unprecedented' scale

'Food crime' has reached unprecedented levels, a new report to be published on Thursday is expected to say.

Commissioned by the UK environment agency and health department, the report is understood to recommend the creation of a 'food crime unit'.

It draws on evidence from international police bodies Interpol and Europol.

They say that international gangs are diversifying - shifting from drug trafficking and armed robbery to illegal and fraudulent food trading.

The review of Britain's food supply chains was announced in response to the horsemeat fraud in 2013.

Michael Ellis, assistant director of Interpol, told BBC News: 'This has changed the scope of investigations. Criminals have realised that they can make the same amount of money by dealing with counterfeit food. Invariably the sentences are much lighter.

'In my experience, the patterns used by criminals involved in counterfeiting are very similar to those used in the dealing of drugs. They operate front companies, they employ front bank accounts, they will have false declarations for the movement of their goods, they will mis-declare their shipments.'

Operation Opson III in December 2013 and January 2014 involved co-ordinated raids across 33 countries in the Americas, Asia and Europe.

More than 131,000 litres of oil and vinegar, 20 tonnes of spices and condiments, nearly 430,000 litres of counterfeit drink and 45 tonnes of dairy products were seized. In addition, 96 people were arrested.

Food crime can have fatal consequences. In China in 2008, an industrial chemical, melamine, was added to increase the protein content of baby milk. Six babies died of severe kidney damage as a result.

In the Czech Republic in 2012, more than 40 people were killed by vodka and rum that had been laced with methanol.

Mr Ellis said: 'Counterfeiting impacts on everyone. The criminals have no care at all for the hygiene or bacterial content in the end product. They just want the brand name in order to get their money.'

Huw Watkins from the Intellectual Property Office explained that it was a difficult issue to tackle.

'The problem with fake and illicit food is that not many people understand how complex the issue is. The initial response is that it doesn't happen; that it happens elsewhere. We enjoy a very good standard of food safety in the UK, and we want that to continue,' he said.

The methanol poisoning deaths in the Czech Republic changed the mindset of the organisations in charge of food safety. Mr Watkins said: 'People were actually shocked at the sheer numbers, not just killed but seriously injured.'

In the UK, the system to ensure the safety of the food chain is complicated. Different elements are dealt with by different departments.

For example, food labelling is dealt with by the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health, Defra, and also Trading Standards officers who are employed by local authorities. There are also Environmental Health Officers who deal with complaints about food quality, hygiene and safety issues.

Novel technology created in a laboratory could help in the fight against the food fraudsters.

Pulsar, developed by Oxford Instruments in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, can identify meat in a matter of seconds rather than days.

Rather than isolating DNA, it looks at the so-called 'fat fingerprint': each animal has a different amount of fat in its meat. However, the machine cannot yet identify the different meats in processed foods, so could only be used to screen meat before it gets into the factory.

Responsibility for checking food sellers, restaurants or processing plants, is principally down to Trading Standards officers. However, according to the Trading Standards Institute, budgets for this in England and Wales have been cut by an average of 40% since 2010.

In Worcestershire, for example, reports suggest there may just be six Trading Standards officers for the whole of the county next year as opposed to 25 in 2013/14. There has also been a cut in the number of public analyst laboratories, which is where food samples are sent to be tested.

Data on the number of official food samples taken shows that for the year 2012-2013, dozens of district councils including Swindon, Brent and Cheltenham carried out zero or minimal tests for food contamination and composition.

Rebecca Kaya, from Buckinghamshire Trading Standards, explained: 'We have about 20 officers left in Buckinghamshire and we have got to cover the entire county so that's actually quite a long distance. It's a lot of area to cover, a lot of businesses, we've got in Bucks around 2,500 farms, and all the businesses associated with selling food and retailing meat.'

They are no longer able to routinely visit premises. 'We are somewhat diminished, but what we are finding is new ways of working, much more intelligence led ways of working, using the slightly more limited resources that we have got now,' she added.

The consumer organisation Which? recently tested 60 lamb takeaways and found that 24 of them contained other meats such as beef or chicken. The meat in five samples couldn't be identified at all.

The Food Standards Agency response has been to order 300 samples to be taken from restaurants across the country.