Thursday, 4 September 2014

Food crime on ‘unprecedented’ scale

Food crime occurring on ‘unprecedented’ scale – reportBy Claire MarshallBBC environment correspondentCriminal gangs are shifting from drug trafficking and robbery elements into food crime
“Food crime” has reached unprecedented levels, a new report to be published on Thursday is expected to say.
Commissioned by the UK environment agency and health department, the report is understood to recommend the creation of a “food crime unit”.

It draws on evidence from international police bodies Interpol and Europol.
They say that international gangs are diversifying – shifting from drug trafficking and armed robbery to illegal and fraudulent food trading.
The review of Britain’s food supply chains was announced in response to the horsemeat fraud in 2013.
Michael Ellis, assistant director of Interpol, told BBC News: “This has changed the scope of investigations. Criminals have realised that they can make the same amount of money by dealing with counterfeit food. Invariably the sentences are much lighter.
“In my experience, the patterns used by criminals involved in counterfeiting are very similar to those used in the dealing of drugs. They operate front companies, they employ front bank accounts, they will have false declarations for the movement of their goods, they will mis-declare their shipments.”
Operation Opson III in December 2013 and January 2014 involved co-ordinated raids across 33 countries in the Americas, Asia and Europe.
More than 131,000 litres of oil and vinegar, 20 tonnes of spices and condiments, nearly 430,000 litres of counterfeit drink and 45 tonnes of dairy products were seized. In addition, 96 people were arrested.
China’s melamine in milk scandal illustrated the dangers of food crime
Food crime can have fatal consequences. In China in 2008, an industrial chemical, melamine, was added to increase the protein content of baby milk. Six babies died of severe kidney damage as a result.
In the Czech Republic in 2012, more than 40 people were killed by vodka and rum that had been laced with methanol.
Mr Ellis said: “Counterfeiting impacts on everyone. The criminals have no care at all for the hygiene or bacterial content in the end product. They just want the brand name in order to get their money.”
Huw Watkins from the Intellectual Property Office explained that it was a difficult issue to tackle.
“The problem with fake and illicit food is that not many people understand how complex the issue is. The initial response is that it doesn’t happen; that it happens elsewhere. We enjoy a very good standard of food safety in the UK, and we want that to continue,” he said.
The methanol poisoning deaths in the Czech Republic changed the mindset of the organisations in charge of food safety. Mr Watkins said: “People were actually shocked at the sheer numbers, not just killed but seriously injured.”
Claire Marshall shows how the new meat-testing machine works
In the UK, the system to ensure the safety of the food chain is complicated. Different elements are dealt with by different departments.
For example, food labelling is dealt with by the Food Standards Agency, the Department of Health, Defra, and also Trading Standards officers who are employed by local authorities. There are also Environmental Health Officers who deal with complaints about food quality, hygiene and safety issues.
Novel technology created in a laboratory could help in the fight against the food fraudsters.
Pulsar, developed by Oxford Instruments in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, can identify meat in a matter of seconds rather than days.
Rather than isolating DNA, it looks at the so-called “fat fingerprint”: each animal has a different amount of fat in its meat. However, the machine cannot yet identify the different meats in processed foods, so could only be used to screen meat before it gets into the factory.
The trader in the Netherlands places an order for meat with abattoirs in Romania.
Abattoirs send meat to France
The meat from the abattoirs travels to Spanghero in France. However, Romania rejects claims that it was responsible for wrongly describing the horsemeat from its abattoirs as beef. Horsemeat is always labelled as such, they say. The Romanian authorities claim records show orders had been for horse carcass – easily distinguishable from beef.
Meat used to make products
Spanghero sends the meat to the Comigel subsidiarys factory in Luxembourg before the finished products are supplied to Findus and retailers across Europe, including the UK. The president of Comigel says the company was unaware the meat was coming from abroad.
Horsemeat found in Ireland and UK
Tests by Irish authorities have found equine DNA in beefburgers made by firms in the Irish Republic and the UK. Traces of horsemeat have also been found in stored meat at another plant in Ireland and one in Northern Ireland. In mainland Britain, police and officials probing alleged horsemeat mislabelling have carried out raids at a slaughterhouse in West Yorkshire and a meat firm near Aberystwyth. Three men were later arrested on suspicion of offences under the Fraud Act..
Responsibility for checking food sellers, restaurants or processing plants, is principally down to Trading Standards officers. However, according to the Trading Standards Institute, budgets for this in England and Wales have been cut by an average of 40% since 2010.
In Worcestershire, for example, reports suggest there may just be six Trading Standards officers for the whole of the county next year as opposed to 25 in 2013/14. There has also been a cut in the number of public analyst laboratories, which is where food samples are sent to be tested.
Data on the number of official food samples taken shows that for the year 2012-2013, dozens of district councils including Swindon, Brent and Cheltenham carried out zero or minimal tests for food contamination and composition.
Rebecca Kaya, from Buckinghamshire Trading Standards, explained: “We have about 20 officers left in Buckinghamshire and we have got to cover the entire county so that’s actually quite a long distance. It’s a lot of area to cover, a lot of businesses, we’ve got in Bucks around 2,500 farms, and all the businesses associated with selling food and retailing meat.”
They are no longer able to routinely visit premises. “We are somewhat diminished, but what we are finding is new ways of working, much more intelligence led ways of working, using the slightly more limited resources that we have got now,” she added.
The consumer organisation Which? recently tested 60 lamb takeaways and found that 24 of them contained other meats such as beef or chicken. The meat in five samples couldn’t be identified at all.
The Food Standards Agency response has been to order 300 samples to be taken from restaurants across the country.
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