Spectre of food fraud haunts the industry

A YEAR on from his review of the horse-meat scandal, Prof Chris Elliott is impressed with retailers’ reaction but warns that criminals may just have moved on to more vulnerable sectors.

Foodservice Footprint QUB_270511_0858-300x214 Spectre of food fraud haunts the industry Features Features  Queen's University Belfast Professor Elliott Paul Willgoss Marks & Spencer John Dyson Global Food Security food fraud Food Crime Unit FDF Chris Elliott BRC BHA

Marks & Spencer recently became the latest supermarket to move to a system of unannounced food audits. The objective is to “create resilient supply chains that are difficult to penetrate for those who want to do the wrong thing”, Paul Willgoss, the company’s director of food technology, told Food Manufacture. “We’ve spent a long time speaking with Chris Elliott and learning about what he felt the industry should do” to safeguard against fraud, he added.


It’s been a year since Prof Elliott, the director of the Institute for Global Food Security and pro-vice-chancellor of the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast, published his “review into the integrity and assurance of food supply chains” – a report triggered by the horse-meat scandal of 2013. He’s clearly been impressed with some of the industry reaction.


“There’s been a huge drive in the retail sector to make sure that they don’t get caught out again,” he explains. “Some of the really big players – the retailers and processors – have taken on board that they have to work more closely together. It doesn’t happen quickly and I get mixed reviews,” he says, but also “a lot of feedback to suggest it’s not as adversarial as it was”.


Even the trade associations have opened up, says Elliott, with the Food & Drink Federation and the British Retail Consortium “working hard to share information. I can’t find this kind of ‘association of associations’ happening anywhere else in the world,” he adds.


But this progress by food retailers has a twist in the tail. “My real fear is that the pressure points have changed and criminals are targeting SMEs [small to medium-sized enterprises] and foodservice,” Elliott says. “The foodservice chains do tend to be more complex and every link is a vulnerability.”


So how has the foodservice and hospitality sector reacted? Is there a real and present danger from fraud? And what commodities might the criminals target?


While the retail sector has been focused and vocal in responding to equine DNA found in some products, it’s much more difficult to discern how the hospitality and foodservice industry has reacted. After publication of the review, the British Hospitality Association (BHA) food expert John Dyson said: “Since the horse-meat incident our members have reviewed their testing programmes and taken action where possible to shorten their supply chains.”


A year on the BHA declined requests for an interview, or to provide responses to the following questions:


  • In the past 12 months what has the BHA done to ensure the systems in place among its members are tightened to ensure we don’t have a repeat of the horsemeat scandal?
  • What level of input has the BHA had in to the work being done by the Food Standards Agency and DEFRA to ensure that all Elliott’s recommendations are met?


There was also no comment in response to Elliott’s stark warning. Instead the BHA offered a three-paragraph “food security update” published in its summer newsletter. This stated that the association “remains active with the FSA and DEFRA to support the expansion of their Food Crime Unit” and that it is “working with the FSA to support the growth of their technical response and industry communication functions to ensure we as a greater community are well prepared should we face a food crime or threat or food emergency”.


Is that enough? Given his concerns, Elliott remains to be convinced. “What worries me more than anything else is that the people making money from food fraud that see these efforts being made in one area will change tack and move on to another.”


One industry observer suggests the BHA approach was less proactive than others, not least when it came to coordinating an industry-wide effort to gather intelligence and improve what the scandal exposed as a porous and complicated supply chain in some cases.


Elliott’s report suggested: “The food industry must above all else demonstrate that having a safe, high-integrity food system for the UK is their main responsibility and priority.” A number of major foodservice players were found to have horse meat in their supply chains but there is precious little publicly available information about what any foodservice operator affected by the scandal has done since.


The British Retail Consortium, which counts some foodservice companies among its number, has encouraged its members to bare all. “Maintaining the trust of the customer is critical to the long-term survival of any retailer in the age of mass information,” its director general, Helen Dickinson, wrote in a blog earlier this year. “Key to keeping that trust is making sure the business is as transparent and open as possible. It should come as no surprise, that the most successful retailers are those which make transparency a top priority, both in times of crisis when something does go wrong and also, crucially, in the ordinary course of business.”


There is no shortage of polls showing just how far trust levels fell on the back of the horse-meat scandal. This time last year Populus found that 32% weren’t confident that the food they bought contained exactly what was on the ingredients list. What’s more, 55% were worried that a fraud incident could happen again.


Twelve months on it’s unclear whether the foodservice sector has begun clawing back some of this trust. Equally unclear is what the industry has done to make sure there isn’t another scandal. What commodity might the criminals target next? “It’s really difficult to pick,” says Elliott, but it tends to be products sold in “high volumes or for high prices. Herbs and spices are incredibly vulnerable,” he adds, undoubtedly as another warning for the foodservice sector.