How long before the next big food scare?
Earlier this month BBC Radio 4’s excellent ‘The Life Scientific’ featured Professor Chris Elliott. He is Professor of Food Safety and Microbiology at Queen’s University Belfast and is a founding director of its Institute for Global Food Security. He has developed a reputation as the foremost ‘food detective’, developing scientific solutions to detect contaminated and adulterated food, much of which results from criminal activity.
In that programme Professor Elliott made the remarkable statement that “more money is made in food crime than there is in the entire heroin trade in the world”. Thankfully, I have never partaken of heroin but I do eat quite a lot of food, so this bit of information is quite alarming.
Professor Elliott came to public attention when, 10 years ago, he was asked by the then Defra Secretary of State, Owen Paterson (remember him?), to carry out a review of the horsemeat scandal which engulfed Tesco, ABP Food Group, Findus and other retailers, food service suppliers and food manufacturers. The shock and horror that certain supposedly beef products contained horsemeat (and also pork) was front page news. It seriously damaged corporate reputations and confidence in the integrity of the food we regularly eat. Horsemeat in itself was not necessarily a health risk, although we generally prefer the beef on the label, but it could have contained prohibited equine drugs such as ‘bute’.
Ireland was the first country to report the presence of horse meat in burgers and this led to a widespread product recall in the UK in January 2013. The subsequent Parliamentary Select Committee report found that the horsemeat contamination resulted from criminal activity in the supply chain rather than the deliberate procurement of horsemeat by food manufacturers.
It was Professor Elliott’s later report which highlighted the need to prioritise food safety and prevent food crime, putting the interests of consumers above all other considerations. The clear concern was that cost saving may have resulted in ‘beef’ being sourced from less reliable suppliers on the Continent, the raw material often going through multiple ownership.
The Elliott Review led to the creation in 2015 of the National Food Crime Unit as the law enforcement function of the UK’s Food Standards Agency. A number of the leading food retailers and manufacturers also came together in the same year to found the Food Industry Intelligence Network, now comprising over 50 companies, to collect and share intelligence on food integrity,
You might think that the massive wake-up call provided by the horsemeat scandal, which not only affected burgers, meatballs and lasagne but also wiped over £300m off the Tesco share price, would have resulted in a major investment in the area of local authority environmental health and trading standards. Not only has this not happened but, post-Brexit, no checks and inspections are taking place as food enters the UK from Continental Europe. The first line of defence which was Rotterdam is no longer there and free passage to the UK provides a perfect opportunity for food fraudsters.
Professor Elliott is less concerned about the big companies supplying the major retailers, which have put in place greater technical resources, but this may not be the case for those supplying independent retailers and the huge food service market. To quote Professor Elliott, the next food crisis is “coming down the road”.