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Police to aid agency's probe into food crimes

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Date - 8th September 2014
By - Josh Loeb - Police Oracle


Officers will be seconded to the new Food Crime Unit set up by the government to resolve an "impasse" around tackling an increasingly profitable revenue stream for organised criminal gangs.

Professor Chris Elliott's report on the integrity and assurance of food supply networks, published on September 4, recommended the government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) take the lead in gathering intelligence on how meat produced or obtained unlawfully is entering the food chain in Britain and bypassing strict hygiene checks.

The new Food Crime Unit was set up in the wake of the 2013 horse meat scandal.

The report stated: "If the role as lead agency for food crime is passed to the FSA, then it would have to acquire the necessary systems and culture to seek, hold and develop criminal intelligence. 

"This would go some way to resolving the current impasse whereby police do not become involved in food crime for lack of criminal intelligence justifying their involvement, while criminal intelligence is not sought in relation to food crime because it is not a police priority. 

"There is a distinction between industry intelligence and criminal intelligence of the kind that is generated by covert police sources. It would be more likely that such intelligence would be identified and developed if a lead ‘customer’ for it was established, and this should be the FSA."

The provenance of the meat in public circulation was thrown into sharp focus by the horse meat scandal, when it was revealed that "beef" burgers sold in some supermarkets contained horse DNA.

More recently rural insurer, NFU Mutual, noted that livestock theft was up 25 per cent last year, adding that organised criminals were stealing sheep from farms on a mass scale to illegally slaughter - with the meat ending up on diners' plates.

In Northern Ireland, there is evidence that cattle rustlers have been snatching whole herds of cows worth tens of thousands of pounds and slaughtering them in backstreet abattoirs - an activity viewed by criminals as a low-risk, high-profit practice. 

The Police Service of Northern Ireland and Irish Garda are jointly monitoring livestock markets to look for animals for sale with bogus ear tags.

Investigations into high-level organised criminal enterprises involved in food crime will be handled by the National Crime Agency, Prof Elliott's report stated.

Low priority

As part of his research Prof Elliott questioned forces about whether they were well placed to tackle food crime - many said this type of crime was not a priority. 

For example, the Metropolitan Police's response stated: "The Met would contend that there are other agencies that could and should be better placed to tackle food fraud, and it is not tenable for the Police Service to step in to fill the void in terms of capacity and capability.”

An FSA spokesman said: “In line with Prof Elliott’s recommendations we are taking a phased approach to the development of the unit, with phase one concentrating on the development of intelligence capability. We will build our capability by seconding appropriate expertise where necessary, including police officers and other experts as appropriate.

 “The new unit will require significant resource that will initially be found from the FSA’s operating budget, starting with a team of around 30 staff split between intelligence and investigatory expertise.”