What is food fraud?

The National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) describes food fraud as 'a dishonest act or omission, relating to the production or supply of food, which is intended for personal gain or to cause loss to another party'.

Food Crime is defined 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'.

Examples of food fraud include;

  • 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
  • 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

Food fraud becomes food crime when the scale and potential impact of the activity is considered to be serious. This might mean that the criminal activity has cross-regional, national or international reach, that there is significant risk to public safety, or that there is a substantial financial loss to consumers or businesses.

How is Food fraud investigated?

In 2016 there were 156 cases of food fraud: 147 concerning food and 9 concerning feed. Mislabelling composition was the largest violation observed and the top fraud commodities were meat and meat products, fish and fish products, fats and oils, poultry meat and poultry meat products and milk and milk products.

The Food Standards Agency's (FSA) National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) works with partners to protect consumers from serious criminal activity that impacts on the safety or authenticity of the food and drink they consume.

If you have any concerns about food crime you can get in touch with Food Crime Confidential on 0207 276 8787 or email.

The FSA have produced a guide for the food industry 'Working together to tackle the threat from food crime', which can be found here.

Recently in the news

In the news recently was the result of a trial that has attracted a great deal of comment. Three men were convicted for the offence of "conspiracy to defraud". The conspiracy that led to this conviction was involvement in the horsemeat scandal of 2013, in which it became apparent that tons of horsemeat had been added to beef without being properly declared and was being sold at the usual price of pure beef.

Interestingly, the offence used to charge the individuals is centuries old, and is part of the common law. This is different from most modern food law, which tends to be statutory (i.e. made by Parliament, or the EU). An offender, on conviction, is liable for a maximum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment, the offence is only triable at the Crown Court, which is reserved for the most serious offences.

In general, to commit the offence two or more people need to agree to dishonestly deprive a person of something that they are entitled to, or to injure a person's exclusive rights. An agreement (even if dishonest) to achieve a lawful object by lawful means cannot fall within the scope of this offence. This offence relies on multiple individuals working together - it cannot be committed by an individual working alone (i.e. you cannot conspire with yourself).

There is no need for an intention to deceive the victim to be proved, or even an intention to cause loss. What is required is that an interest of the victim is actually or potentially placed at risk. The conspiracy does not need to involve the commission of a criminal offence, and it also is not necessary that the conspirators themselves will perpetrate the fraud themselves.

Due to the wide interpretation of the offence it is often a preferred charge for prosecutors, purely because of the breadth of situations it can apply to.