On 28 November 2016, the National Food Crime Unit launched ‘Food Crime Confidential’, which is a phone and email reporting or ‘whistleblowing’ facility. Anyone can use the service, but it is targeted mainly at those working in or around the food industry, to allow them to report suspicions in confidence. Food Crime is defined by the Food Standards Agency (“FSA”) as ‘Financially motivated dishonesty relating to food production or supply, which is either complex or results in serious detriment to consumers, businesses or the overall public’. The Unit in particular want to hear about suspicions in relation to:
- food or drink that has potentially been adulterated or substituted;
- methods used in workplaces for producing, processing, storing, labelling or transporting food that appears illegal or substandard; and
- companies or businesses that are selling items of food or drink that purport to be of a certain quality, suggest health benefits or claim to be from a specific place or region, but do not appear genuine or are suspected to be fake.
Given the continuing focus on food integrity and prevention of food crime, this should act as a reminder to a wide range of food businesses to ensure they have ‘reasonable precautions’ in place to help prevent ‘food fraud’ or ‘food crime’ by themselves or others within the food chain now and in future. What will amount to ‘reasonable precautions’ will depend on a number of variables, such as the commodity/ type of food, the nature and resources of the particular business, the details and geography of the supply chain and the potential for harm (for example, number of customers or type of product or risk). Whether the food is own-branded by the Seller may also have an impact, for example under the EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation, the primary responsibility for information rests with the person under whose name the food is marketed.
Businesses should not rely only upon certification or documentation received from their suppliers. Rather, food businesses should ensure they monitor and act on known and emerging threats in their supply chain to ensure that the precautions and safeguards they have in place continue to be ‘reasonable’ and proportionate to the level of risk. Additionally, the Food Crime Annual Strategic Assessment 2016 published by the FSA and Food Standards Scotland (the “2016 Assessment”) reminds us that:
The primary responsibility for tackling regulatory non-compliance at a local level continues to rest with local authorities. Once fully operational, the Units will provide additional capability where dishonesty is involved, particularly where the nature and dimensions are demonstrably serious or complex. Activity which best protects consumers from harm will be prioritised, taking into account the threat posed, as well as unit capacity and capability and that of partners.
The Assessment provides insight on threats by commodity that regulators and enforcement agencies have been focused on.
We anticipate that the launch of the Food Crime Unit will create both challenges and opportunities for all food business operators, from manufacturers to caterers to retailers. Ensuring that you have reasonable precautions/ due diligence procedures in place might involve:
- A review of your supply chains to assess the risks, with a particular focus on threats which have been identified by enforcement agencies, such as those highlighted in the FSAs 2016 Assessment and/ or other operators.
- Implementation and/ or maintenance/ review of your safeguards to protect against those risks and to ensure recognition of new and emerging, as well as existing, threats.
- Documenting all agreed systems and audits to check ongoing compliance in practice.
- Ensuring food information–including any packaging, marketing information and point of sale displays–are accurate and compliant with labelling and advertising rules, including in relation to allergen information (even for loose, non-prepacked foods).
Ultimately, the basic rule of thumb for any compliance program should be to ensure that a product is ‘what it says on the box’. Any food business that can successfully negotiate the challenges and offer transparency to consumers may well improve customer loyalty, as well as ensure that their business is prepared for any future ‘food crime’ crisis.