Even though the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) was far from ready, people were dying – so Andy Morling knew he had to act without hesitation.
In the summer of 2015, after an inquest found that 21-year-old Eloise Parry had died as a result of taking slimming pills containing the highly toxic and banned substance dinitrophenol (DNP), Morling launched Operation Sycamore. It turned out to be his proudest achievement to date as boss of the NFCU.
“The unit was little more than a brass plate above the door when we started the operation, but thanks to some high-quality intelligence work by my staff, two UK-based suppliers were identified and a substantial quantity of material was seized,” Morling says.
Six people died in the UK as a consequence of taking DNP in 2015. Last year, there was just one fatality. Although Morling says “it was still one too many”, he is convinced the actions of his unit has saved lives.
The merits of the DNP case aside, the overall success of the NFCU and its 20-strong team has been less easy to ascertain.
Set up on the recommendation of the report into the 2013 horsemeat scandal, produced by Professor Chris Elliott, who heads up the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, the unit is fast approaching its second birthday.
And, as we discuss the progress the unit has made, a Food Standards Agency (FSA) review over whether it should be given greater investigatory powers and more resources is ongoing.
Keen not to jeopardise the review process, Morling is tight-lipped over its potential outcome, which is expected in spring.
Level of fraud (Back to top)
However, he is more than willing to shed light on the level of fraud he believes is taking place in the food industry, the nature of that fraud, and the role firms should play in reducing it.
With a quarter of a century of law enforcement experience behind him (see box), Morling is as well placed as any to assess the level of crime that takes place across the food supply chain.
He is pleased to confirm there is no evidence of ‘organised’ crime in the UK food industry (in the sense of gangs setting out deliberately to profit from crime). That said, he is certain serious food crime is taking place.
“In any industry, organised criminals need to have access to the means to commit the offence – the tools, equipment and so on. That’s very difficult to obtain in the food industry,” he explains.
“What we are seeing though, is good businesses gone bad – and that’s an inconvenient truth to many in this industry.
“These are legitimate participants in the food industry who, for one reason or another, take different behaviours that lead them to go from being an honest, to a dishonest, food operator.”
In Morling’s eyes, dishonesty is far from being a black and white process. “Committing fraud is not always a permanent move – when the need to offend reduces, operators often revert to being honest again,” he says.
“However, it’s then easier to move back to being dishonest next time, because they’ve already made that cognitive distortion in their minds that it’s possible and legitimate to do so.”
Type of crime (Back to top)
While Morling is confident his unit has now established the type of crime that exists in the food industry, he claims it is impossible to pick out sectors where it is most prevalent.
“In intelligence work, you have to accept there are some things you are never going to know. If more incidents of offending are being recorded in one sector over another, it could simply be down to more people reporting it, or that we are looking more closely,” he says.
Instead, the NFCU recently identified seven main types of food crime, which Morling discloses publicly for the first time.
They are: theft, unlawful processing, waste diversion, adulteration, substitution, misrepresentation of quality, origin, provenance or benefits, and misrepresentation of durability.
“So, rather than sectors, it’s the types of behaviours that are important to us,” he says. “Adulteration and substitution, for example, are applicable across a wide variety of areas.”
According to Morling, intelligence work is a three-stage process. He believes the first – building connections with industry and putting structures in place to enable intelligence to be shared – has been successfully met by the NFCU.
The second stage – getting those intelligence sources to start flowing – has been more of a challenge. Meanwhile, stage three – analysing the information given – is entirely dependent on the intelligence being there.
To enable people in the industry to pass on information more easily, the NFCU last November launched its Food Crime Confidential helpline.
Confidential helpline (Back to top)
Keen for it not to be seen as a whistleblowing line (which Morling describes as a “pejorative term”), the helpline treats information provided in the strictest confidence. However, he concedes its success so far has been limited.
“We’re averaging around 100 contacts a month, so I’m happy with the volume – but I would like to see the quality improve. We aim to address that by working more closely with trade bodies, and we’ve also got a poster campaign coming out soon,” says Morling.
He accepts though, that getting people to talk is always going to be a hard sell.
“I understand that people may feel they could be putting their own livelihoods at risk if they pass on information about their employer, but I also know there are people out there currently wrestling with their consciences.
“I want to assure people that we will treat their information with the utmost respect and sensitivity. That’s the game we are in.”
He also wants to forge closer links with food company bosses, as they are often victims of malpractice themselves.
“When a food business owner discovers they have been a victim of a supplier fraud, yes, they can de-list that supplier. But they can also speak to us and embark on a process that hopefully leads to neutralisation of that fraud.”
Again, Morling understands why firms may want to avoid “shining a light” on themselves. But his rationale for them doing so rests in the belief that, ultimately, both the NFCU and the food industry both share same interest – serving the consumer.
“As far as I’m concerned, the food industry and the NFCU are trains on parallel tracks heading in the same direction, and our shared destination is consumer satisfaction.”
Watch Andy Morling give a detailed progress report on his time at the National Food Crime Unit in this exclusive video interview.
NAME: Andy Morling
JOB TITLE: Head of the National Food Crime Unit, Food Standards Agency
DOMESTICS: Married, with twin girls.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Morling began his law enforcement career 25 years ago as a specialist investigator, focusing on international drug trafficking and serious economic crime, in the investigation division of what was then HM Customs and Excise.
After a period of secondment as a covert surveillance course manager and later as manager of the police service’s dedicated covert law enforcement advice team, Morling joined the Serious Fraud Office in 2009.
A year later, he left to join the Serious Organised Crime Agency (now the National Crime Agency) with responsibility for tackling child sexual exploitation and abuse, and became internationally-recognised as an expert in the criminal threat from, and response to, online child sexual abuse.
In 2014, Morling led the UK law enforcement contribution to David Cameron’s UK/US Taskforce to counter online child sexual exploitation. He designed and led the 2014 WeProtect event, which brought together US and UK technology companies in an effort to develop technological solutions to tackle online child sex offending. Morling joined the Food Standards Agency in March 2015.
AWAY FROM WORK: Aside from his family, Morling’s other love is underground electronic dance music. “Sadly, my occasional stints as an enthusiastic amateur deep US house DJ are behind me!” He is also a keen traveller, and owns a 300-year-old farmhouse in the Italian region of Puglia.