Food Crime Unit review could see radical change

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Should the National Food Crime Unit have more policing powers?
Should the National Food Crime Unit have more policing powers?

Related tags: Fsa, Food standards agency

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is about to commission an independent review of its National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), set up in December 2014 in the wake of the 2013 horsemeat scandal, which could see it moved away from the FSA and take on more policing powers.

The wide-ranging review planned is designed to assess how the NFCU is working two years after being set up and recommend changes to its structure and remit, where these are deemed to be necessary. It will be completed by December 2016.

Moving the NFCU away from the FSA is one option likely to be considered as a way of encouraging more companies in the food and drink supply chain to share intelligence. Businesses have been reluctant to share information, fearing the FSA's policy of openness would compromise them.

In a progress report to the FSA’s board last month, the NFCU’s head of food crime Andy Morling described the tension caused by the FSA’s role as a consumer advocate and its role as a criminal investigator. He said it was as “a significant barrier to intelligence sharing”​.

Intelligence gathering

Morling also reported on the NFCU’s intelligence gathering activities and achievements to date.

While the NFCU’s progress had been impeded by the reluctance of industry to share intelligence, the next stage of its development – which could see it investigate cases and take action itself against transgressors – will present even bigger challenges.

The review will need to establish whether the NCFU’s future is better placed within the FSA or as a separate government body. It will also assess whether it needs to take on more policing powers, which would require its estimated £1.2M budget for 2016/17 to be substantially increased.

Morling described the challenge for the NFCU of providing operational leadership in incidents of fraud. “As the specialist national unit, partners understandably look to the NFCU to give strategic and tactical direction in such circumstances or to either support or own such investigations,”​ his report stated. “Given its current mandate to focus on intelligence development, the NFCU is often unable to meet either demand.”

Common misconception

The FSA’s chief operating officer Jason Feeney told the board meeting: “There is a quite common misconception that the unit investigates food crime. The two-year review will see whether or not there is a case for extending the remit of the unit.”

Several FSA board members, including Jeff Halliwell, former md of Bernard Matthews and Fox’s Biscuits, expressed concern that were the NFCU’s powers to be extended it would require far more money and this could divert already strained resources from the FSA’s other core activities, were it to remain part of the regulator.

“We will not solve food crime on a pocket-full of change,”​ said FSA chair Heather Hancock, summing up the board debate.

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