Horse meat report's food crime call
A national food crime prevention network which involves unannounced audits and a zero- tolerance approach will help protect consumers from any more incidents like the horse meat scandal, a government-commissioned report says.
Professor Chris Elliott is calling for a "robust, effective" Food Crime Unit to protect the industry and consumers from criminal activity and support better links with food crime agencies across the EU and beyond.
And he said consumers must be put first by ensuring that their needs in relation to food safety and food crime prevention are the "top priority".
Prof Elliott said the UK food industry was "very competitive and there is a constant drive to reduce costs and maximise profits", adding: "Consumers are reliant on the leadership, good intentions and good practices of those who supply food and regulate it. Consumers expect government and industry to provide a food system which is safe, resilient and free from criminal interference.
"Consumers must be able to trust that the food they consume is what it claims to be."
He said that while all consumers were at risk from food fraud, lower income groups spent a higher proportion of their income on food, particularly processed foods, which were more susceptible to fraud.
And he said: "Some consumers are at risk if they have to rely on others for food preparation, such as those in care homes, or hospitals.
"Recent surveys by local authorities such as Leicester City Council, West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire and West Sussex, and the consumer organisation Which? have shown that consumers using fast food outlets in inner city areas are often buying food which is not what it claims to be.
"In some cases the evidence suggests that problems arose because of unintentional labelling mistakes, but there is a concern that other fast food outlets may have been sourcing cheaper meat which increased the risk of food fraud. "
Professor Elliott said buying policies, particularly within some of the larger retailers, were "a matter of concern".
He said: "The review cautions against procurement of goods for less than the recognised reasonable price, based on market knowledge.
"This is neither good for the sustainability of UK farming nor the integrity of the food industry and ultimately impacts negatively on consumers."
And he issued a stern warning that it was the responsibility of retailers to provide evidence that they had checked the background of any products bought for well below the recognised market price.
He said: "In such a case it is for the retailer to be able to produce evidence that it checked that there were no grounds for suspicion of the product being counterfeit or adulterated, because in such a case the counterfeit or adulterated goods would amount to criminal property."
He said estimates of the extent of criminality and serious organised crime in food provision varied widely and the full extent of the problem in the UK was unknown.
But he concluded: "The UK has one of the safest food supply systems in the world, and all those involved should be commended for what has been achieved.
"I am pleased that the Government and the food industry have already taken some major steps forward in response to the interim report's recommendations aimed at restoring consumer confidence and protecting hard-working honest businesses from food crime.
"I believe the creation of the national food crime prevention framework will ensure measures are put in place to further help protect consumers from any food fraud incidents in the future."
The report, commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Department of Health (DoH), was in response to the horsemeat scandal that first began to unfold in January last year, when it emerged that frozen burgers supplied to several supermarkets including Tesco contained horse DNA.
Investigations found other beef products sold by retailers including lasagne and spaghetti bolognese were contaminated, while meals in schools and hospitals had to be withdrawn after it was found they contained horse meat.
Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss said the Government accepted all of the report's recommendations.
She said: "We're taking action to make sure that families can have absolute confidence in the food that they buy. When a shopper picks something up from a supermarket shelf it should be exactly what it says on the label, and we'll crack down on food fraudsters trying to con British consumers.
"As well as keeping up confidence here, we need to protect the great reputation of our food abroad. We've been opening up even more export markets, which will grow our economy, provide jobs, and support the Government's long-term economic plan.
"The action we're taking gives more power to consumers - meaning they've got better labelling on food, better education about where their food comes from, and better, locally-sourced food in schools and hospitals."
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: "Consumers were rightly outraged by the horsemeat scandal, yet the Government has dragged its heels and made absolutely no progress in the 18 months since it happened.
"David Cameron approved changes to the structures of government that weakened consumer protection, culminating in the horsemeat scandal. The confusion this caused is highlighted in today's report yet the Government have totally failed to admit they got this wrong and have still not reversed the misguided decision to fragment the Food Standards Agency."
"The food industry is the largest single manufacturing sector in the UK, millions of jobs depend on consumer confidence. The Government must now show leadership and establish an effective food crime unit as recommended in the report that can protect the integrity of the food we eat as soon as possible."
Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: "It is only right the Government has accepted the Elliott Review findings and recognised that consumers must be put first if we are to restore trust in the food industry following the horsemeat scandal.
"It's in the interests of responsible food businesses, as well as consumers, to make sure there are effective controls in place and a zero tolerance approach to food crime. We now want the Government to quickly implement all of the recommendations so consumers can be confident in the food they buy."