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Think like a criminal to beat the food fraud

Since the horsemeat scandal, health and safety offences can bring big fines or even prison. Businesses have to be cunning to stay safe, writes Tony Hines.

The scandal over undisclosed horsemeat in food products in the UK forced businesses, the government, auditors, the media and consumers to sit up and take note of what appeared to be a widespread issue in our food and drink industry. The fallout from “horsegate” has led to an acute focus on food authenticity. Businesses are required to have sufficient procedures in place to not only detect fraud but prevent it from occurring in the first place.

In fact, a “good practice” guide to countering fraud was published by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) in November, joining the wealth of existing guidance on the subject of food fraud. The CIEH’s guide suggests companies calculate the financial cost of fraud to their business and invest proportionately depending on the nature and scale of the fraud risk. It also gives importance to establishing a culture of anti-fraud where employees feel confident to whistleblow. It recommends measuring outcomes rather than activities; so, for example, rather than measuring the number of tests undertaken, it recommends having key performance indicators on the financial benefits of counter-fraud work.

The CIEH’s guide can be read as strategic advice for food and beverage businesses in their fight against fraud. It’s then vital to identify the tools that can be used on a tactical level. Within a company’s toolbox there are vulnerability assessments as well as the ability to audit, inspect and to conduct some end-product testing.

Hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) is an internationally recognised food safety management system that is an essential tool for ensuring that commercial food processors make a safe final product. After cases of deliberate food contamination, TACCP (threat assessment critical control point) was developed to defend against intentional contamination.

TACCP alone, however, left companies exposed to broader unidentified risks in their supply chains as a result of intentional contamination. VACCP (vulnerability assessment critical control point) was therefore developed, and, alongside TACCP and HACCP, the three form a comprehensive set of management processes to ensure the consumer receives a safe and authentic final product.

Food fraud’s time in the spotlight has coincided with budget cuts at local authority levels, putting pressure on enforcement resources. The FSA has discussed plans to move to a system where the top 20 or 30 “super food businesses” (which cover the majority of the food supply chain) have regulatory agreements in place with the FSA. As part of this proposed new system, the FSA is trialling a technology-based model for food safety across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Tesco and the restaurant chain Mitchells & Butlers will be part of a three-month pilot starting in December.

The FSA’s plans demonstrate the fact that, from a regulatory point of view, responsibility for food fraud lies with food and beverage businesses. And the stakes are high for those companies that don’t accept their responsibilities.

Since coming into force in February this year, sentencing guidelines in the UK relating to health and safety offences, corporate manslaughter and food safety and hygiene offences show how serious the authorities consider food adulteration offences to be. Fines are levied on a case-by-case basis, up to an unlimited maximum, based on the size of the company and the level of harm caused. For the first time courts can sentence perpetrators to imprisonment in cases of corporate manslaughter.

The case of horsemeat substitution was not shown to be a safety issue. However, just because the scandal didn’t have food safety implications, it doesn’t mean the next case of food fraud won’t either. The consequences of another scandal could be very severe indeed.

Spanish toxic oil syndrome is an example of a devastating food poisoning incident in modern European history. In 1983, 12,000 people required hospital admission after consuming cooking oil that was later found to contain industrial-grade aniline. By May 1983, 339 people had died; by 1992 that figure had increased to more than 800.

As we’ve often said, food businesses need to “think like criminals” to tackle intentional adulteration and substitution. And current thinking on food fraud recommends that businesses borrow tools and techniques from counter-fraud operations to stop criminals in their tracks. Prevention is key.

Professor Tony Hines is VP of global regulatory services and crisis management at Leatherhead Food Research. December’s Footprint Forum, in association with Leatherhead, will focus on food fraud. REGISTER NOW