In this age of increasingly enlightened, engaged and empowered consumers, last year’s horse meat scandal had many choking in outrage on their locally-sourced, organic, gluten-free cornflakes. The episode provided a clear red flag for potential shortcomings in the governance of global food supply chains, and the greater scrutiny that the food system has been subjected to by authorities in the aftermath of the scandal has begun to reveal the true extent of the market for counterfeit food.
With organised criminals continually on the lookout for new opportunities, it appears that food crime has emerged as an attractive one: not only are the potential penalties less severe if caught, but, moreover, the skills, networks and resources required are broadly similar to those associated with more traditional criminal pursuits such as drug trafficking, smuggling or counterfeiting of other goods. The economic downturn has doubtless contributed to the conditions, introducing increased pressure on wallets and a greater incentive to cut costs.
The net result is that food crime is currently a booming business. Indeed, some suggest that as much as 10% of food purchased in the UK may be in some way “suspect”. Moreover, earlier this year a joint operation by Interpol and Europol - named Operation Opson III - led to the arrest of 96 individuals, uncovering a substantial network of organized criminals operating acrossEurope, the Americas and Asia. The quantities of goods seized are difficult to visualise, but when one considers that they included over 131,000 litres of oil and vinegar it is clear that these illicit operations were taking place at considerable scale.
Looking forward, how can this growing threat be addressed? In the light of the horse meat scandal, some critics have suggested that the UK has been behind the curve on identifying and countering food crime. For example, whereas the Netherlands enjoys a dedicated unit of 110 individuals investigating food crime, in the UK historically no one has been charged exclusively with that responsibility. That is, until now. Following a report commissioned by the government in response the scandal, it has been announced that a new Food Crime Unit (FCU) is to be set up within the Food Standards Agency. It will be interesting to follow the FCU’s progression and to see how it tackles this emerging and challenging threat. It seems it will certainly have its plate full.