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Birmingham in bid to lead UK fight against food crime

Birmingham in bid to lead UK fight against food crime

🕔10.Sep 2014

Birmingham could become the centre of a national intelligence unit fighting food crime.

The proposal follows an investigation into the safety of the food supply chain following the discovery last year of horsemeat in numerous products sold in UK supermarkets, shops and fast food outlets.

A review under Professor Chris Elliott, set up by the Government to investigate the scandal, chose Birmingham to conduct a case study examining how a large city could tackle food crime.

Following publication of Prof Elliott’s interim report Birmingham council chief executive Mark Rogers put forward a proposal to host a Food Crime Intelligence Unit.

It’s suggested the city could become the national hub of a small multi-disciplinary team working closely with key stakeholders in locations where criminality exists – a model already working successfully for the England Illegal Money Lending Team based in Birmingham.

The move is backed by the Birmingham Food Council, a community interest company set up earlier this year with three years’ funding from Birmingham Public Health.

Kate Cooper from the New Optimists, a group of 130 West Midlands’ scientists which helped Prof Elliott undertake extensive consultation in Birmingham, said she felt it was significant that no representative from the large catering companies agreed to a request to attend a workshop to discuss the implications of food crime.

Ms Cooper added: “Were the people I approached a tad spooked by the notion of talking about food crime, especially with others from outside their company? Or was their reluctance because such companies as these operate with tight profit margins, so that they literally can’t afford someone to take time out from the daily routine?

“In conversations, I was told several times about rigorous and robust procedures and the like. Yet no-one was from these organisations was prepared to share their best practice.

“Can such companies identify, or afford to identify food crime on their patch? A patch with outsourced catering as in many UK hospitals and schools, or as at HMP Birmingham, where it seems more, perhaps many more than the five organisations we heard about are involved in providing meals.”

Ms Cooper said the consultation uncovered allegations of widespread food crime ranging from watered down beer in pubs to horsemeat in burgers.

“We heard many stories from low-level cheating to crime on an audacious scale.

“Urban chicken rustling, pub booze being diluted, water added to foodstuffs, sawdust as well as horsemeat in ‘homemade’ beefburgers, garlic in vast quantities grown in the Far East and labelled here as French.

“A global supply of manuka honey several times bigger than its harvest, a yet-to-be built overseas fish-processing plant providing fully certificated fish to British buyers who, if not complicit, asked no pertinent questions, cheap liquor sold to nightclub bars from the back of white vans, a meat processing plant set up to take thousands of cattle a year, all rustled.”

It is impossible to estimate the extent of food crime but incidents are likely to be widespread and largely undetected against a backdrop of limited regulation, Ms Cooper claimed.

She added: “Our ignorance is compounded by the current situation in which the intelligence, inspection, sampling and testing to enforce what is criminal law is carried out by strapped-for-cash local authorities who have no incentive to take responsibility for it.

“Food adulteration is as old as human civilisation. At best, we consumers are cheated. At worst, we’re cheated, made ill or even killed. Sometimes stories of these deaths hit the headlines; for example, the infants who died when unscrupulous sophisticated criminals used melamine to boost the “protein” content in baby-milk products in China in 2008.

“Given the threats we’re facing, there is a urgent case in everyone’s interests for a national food crime intelligence system, data analyses of what foods to sample and testing by adequately resourced laboratories independent from the private business sector and any short-term commercial or budgetary pressures.”

Recommendations from Prof Elliott’s interim review include:

  • Industry, government and enforcement agencies always put the needs of consumers above all other considerations, giving food safety and crime prevention priority over other objectives
  • Zero tolerance for food fraud, so minor dishonesties are discouraged and the response to major dishonesties is punitive
  • Clear leadership and co-ordination of investigations and prosecutions; and the public interest is recognised in active enforcement and significant penalties for significant food crimes.

Image credit: Queen’s University Belfast

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