FSA restructures to ensure food crime unit capability

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Brown: 'We don't have the resources to take away responsibility from the police'
Brown: 'We don't have the resources to take away responsibility from the police'

Related tags Food crime unit Food standards agency

The Food Standards Agency is undergoing “major restructuring” creating an estimated 50 new jobs as it sets up the food crime unit (FCU) following the publication of Professor Chris Elliott’s report into last year’s horsemeat scandal.

According to an informed source, the restructuring is necessary to finance the £2–4M a year costs for recruiting individuals with new skills and running the FCU. The FSA’s budget was already under severe strain before the decision to go head with the FCU was formerly announced last week. The government’s failure to provide extra funding for it forced the FSA’s hand.

“This reorganisation happened prior to the​ [publication of the final] Elliott review so that resourcing and the vacancies are aligned to the requirements of a future FCU,” ​said the source.

Other activities downgraded

The issue could prove contentious for the Food Standards Agency (FSA) Board when it meets on Wednesday (September 10) to consider its strategy for the next five years, since it could mean that other priority activities are downgraded.

Last week environment secretary Elizabeth Truss agreed to the establishment of a FCU, together with all of the other proposals contained in Elliott’s final report. However, his proposal to return responsibility for food authenticity and labelling policy to the FSA from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was noticeably absent from it.

Responding to an article​ reporting on a widespread welcome for his final report, Elliott commented: “The challenges ahead are now about implementation.”

When interviewed by Food Manufacture.co.uk earlier this year, FSA chief executive Catherine Brown expressed concern​ that the FSA did not have the resources to take on a national food fraud policing role.

While welcoming the opportunity to provide a central place where intelligence could be brought together, Brown said: “We don’t have the resources to take away responsibility from the police and replicate or set-up a duplicate system which is separate from the police and I am far from convinced that that would be the most effective way of dealing with this.”

Although plans to set up the FCU have now been agreed, Professor Tony Hines, director of membership and crisis management at Leatherhead Food Research, who has been working with the FSA on data collection and analysis, suggested its establishment would take some time.

“They​ [the FSA] are looking to move quite quickly, but I suspect the foundations will be laid between now and the end of the year but the main construction and commissioning of a FCU is going to take a period of time,” ​said Hines.

Inadequate funding

Following the publication of Elliott’s report, some other legal experts have raised fears about the government not funding his proposals properly.

“The ball is now firmly in the government’s court to fund and support these significant changes and while they have paid lip service to agreeing to the creation of a food crime unit, the industry will be keeping a close eye on their next steps,”​ said Hilary Ross, a partner and head of retail food and hospitality at legal firm DWF.

“Given that the initial set up of the unit is estimated to cost between £2–4M a year, it is likely that the government will need to be utterly convinced of the business case before making such an investment.”

Ross also questioned the government’s appetite for improving laboratory services proposed by Elliott, given “our era of austerity”.

And she expressed concern about the sharing of intelligence about food fraud.

The biggest question mark for the food industry is over how intelligence will be gathered for the proposed intelligence hub, which will involve the creation of a ‘safe haven’ to collect and sanitise information from the industry through a confidential source register by an independent body,”​ said Ross.

“It is recommended that the cost of the organisation is funded by industry but that steps are taken to ensure that the information provided by contributors are subject to legal privilege. This clearly needs more thought as the proposed aims of the safe haven and the way of collecting information are not conducive to establishing legal privilege."

‘Food Fraud Stoppers’

However, Hines believed solutions to this problem were available. To ensure the anonymity and ‘safe havens’ of “anyone in the food chain”​ to raise concerns about potential food fraud incidents, a system similar to the police’s ‘Crime Stoppers’ programme would be appropriate, he said. Information received anonymously could then be fed into the FSA’s new food fraud intelligence hub.

“The model I have suggested to the FSA is very much based around Crime Stoppers… ‘Food Fraud Stoppers’ or Stopfoodfraud.com,​ said Hines. “The principle of Crime Stoppers is that we don’t know who you are. What we want is actionable intelligence.”

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