Food Crime Unit closes in on fraudsters

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Miles outlined five active food fraud investigations
Miles outlined five active food fraud investigations

Related tags Supply chain Regulation Food safety Packaging & labelling

The Food Standards Agency's (FSA's) National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) is making progress on food fraud investigations, with sentencing following its first successful conviction due to take place this month.

Revealing the news as part of her report to the FSA board​ on 8 December, FSA chief executive Emily Miles said it continued to press for the NFCU to have more powers to investigate food fraud.

The unit was currently leading five active investigations, she added. Sentencing in Crown Court was due to take place this December for the successful prosecution in an NFCU-led investigation dubbed Operation Atlas​. This concerned offences relating to the sale of 2,4 dinitrophenol alongside others linked to controlled drugs and prescription-only medicines. The defendant entered guilty pleas for all offences.

Other active investigations were:

  • Operation Aspen​, an investigation into examples of European distribution fraud. Fraudsters had been impersonating UK restaurant franchises online to secure the supply of hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of food products from European food businesses, as well as their receipt and supply to other businesses. Following interview, a suspect remains under investigation on suspicion of handling stolen goods, conspiracy to defraud and money laundering offences. As many victims are based in Europe, International Letters of Request (ILORs) have been sent via the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) for victim statements. A full prosecution file would be reviewed once the international evidence was received.
  • Operation Bantam​ concerns the large-scale illicit appropriation and subsequent diversion of poultry animal by-products (ABP) unfit for consumption back into food production. This spans several food businesses of varying scales across England and Wales. This is an intelligence-led NFCU operation where the FSA are supporting a number of local authority investigations. Following NFCU support, two local authority Trading Standards teams have compiled full prosecution case files in respect of the illegal diversion of ABP into the human food chain. Partnership work has also led to the suspension of approval to handle ABP (pending appeal) from one business implicated in the handling of illicit product. The NFCU is continuing engagement with a third local authority to formally interview further suspects.
  • Operation Hawk​ is exploring the large-scale misrepresentation of country of origin on packed meat products. Misrepresentation of origin generates profit in terms of cost savings and a serious competitive advantage over other legitimate businesses, the FSA said. The NFCU drafted a warrant which was applied for by the police and authorised by the Crown Court. The investigation is in the early stages, with the NFCU examining evidence secured as part of the warrant execution.
  • Operation Boston​ concerns the diversion of Category 3 ABP into the human food chain by a local authority-approved food business. The investigation also encompassed the supply of substandard and misdescribed red meat to Ghana, via a Canadian broker. NFCU and a local Environmental Health team conducted a joint investigation due to the cross-border and international activity. NFCU investigators gathered evidence and liaised with the CPS who decided it was not in the public interest to pursue fraud offences. This decision was influenced by potential costs associated with international witnesses. The local authority proceeded to prosecute the managing director of the business under investigation for two offences under Section 14 of the Food Safety Act 1990. On 20 October 2021, two early guilty pleas were entered with the resultant sentence being two formal cautions and £3,000 costs. The food business had surrendered its licence and ceased trading in advance of the hearing.

Alongside her report on food fraud, Miles warned the CBD industry and retailers that they needed to market products responsibly and that local authorities might need to boost enforcement of market regulations.

She laid out the FSA's approach to regulating CBD, bringing the industry into compliance with the need for CBD to go through an FSA safety assessment. She outlined the next steps in that process, including updating the CBD public list​.

Currently, no CBD food products are on the market that have been through the mandatory safety assessment and have been authorised for sale.

The agency said the CBD public list would be updated shortly and would be a public record of products for which credible applications for market authorisation had been made to the FSA. Over the next few months, local authorities and retailers in England and Wales would be able to use the list to check the status of CBD food products and prioritise enforcement where necessary.

'Act responsibly'

"My message to the CBD industry, and to retailers, is that you need act responsibly when marketing and selling these products,"​ said Miles. "And my message to local authorities is that, as products are rejected from our market authorisation process, you may need to step up enforcement efforts. The FSA will support you in this process.”

Speaking on behalf of the board, FSA chair professor Susan Jebb said: “The FSA has a duty to protect consumers. I want to take this opportunity to ask people to think carefully before taking CBD and to follow the FSA’s advice about CBD products. The FSA will not hesitate to take action if evidence emerges that products are unsafe and consumers at great risk.”

Based on current evidence, the FSA advises​ a maximum CBD consumption level of 70mg per day for a healthy adult. For vulnerable consumers it recommends, on a precautionary basis, not taking CBD because the relevant safety assessments have not yet been completed.

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