You might remember the 2013 horsemeat scandal for the explosion of jokes it detonated on social media. “Those Aldi horse burgers were nice, but I prefer My Lidl Pony,” tweeted one wag. “Health and Safety Executive confirm that all who ate #horseburgers are in a stable condition,” quipped another.
But what became known as Horsegate – the discovery of equine DNA in supermarket beef burgers and frozen lasagnes – was no laughing matter. It highlighted the vulnerability of the food supply chain, and cost the UK food industry an estimated £850m in lost sales, product recalls and collapsing share prices – knocking £300m off the market value of Tesco alone. Could it happen again?
“I’m sure it’s been happening again, at all times, for the last 10 years,” says Gary Copson, a retired Metropolitan Police commander who advised the 2014 government-commissioned Elliott Review into the integrity of food supply networks. “Whereas most local authorities had maybe two or three meat inspectors, now you might get three authorities with one or two between them,” he tells i. “It’s naive in the extreme to imagine that a multibillion-pound-a-year industry that’s completely unpoliced is not going to attract the attention of organised crime.”
He adds that some offenders may be choosing food crime over drugs, because the potential dividends are still large and “it’s much, much less risky to deal in things like this that are under the radar”.
Although no single incident has sparked the same concern as the 2013 affair, 10 years on, the food industry has been having flashbacks to one of its darkest hours. Earlier this month, it emerged that the National Food Crime Unit – itself established in the wake of Horsegate – was investigating alleged fraud involving pre-packed sliced beef labelled as British but originating from South America and mainland Europe. Supermarket chain Booths, dubbed the “Waitrose of the north”, confirmed it was the retailer that had immediately ceased trading with the unnamed meat supplier and removed the products from its shelves.
In February, Suffolk Trading Standards intercepted a van full of suspected illegally imported meat and eggs from Romania during spot checks. And in October last year, port officials at Dover inspected 22 Romanian, Moldovan, Ukrainian and Polish vans in a 24-hour period. Illegal imports of animal products were found in 21 of them, including 2.4 tonnes of pork and maggot-infested meat dripping blood onto ready-to-eat food.
Meat is far from the only area of concern. Other food scams have included passing off humble long-grain rice as basmati and switching olive oil for soyabean. In 2014, Which? found that one in six of the fish takeaways it bought from chip shops contained the wrong species. A 2015 study found a quarter of samples of dried oregano to consist of other ingredients, such as much cheaper olive and myrtle leaves.
The illegal food trade in the UK is estimated to be worth at least £700m. Dairy was the individual food group subject to the most food fraud last year, followed by herbs and spices, honey, alcohol, vegetable oils, seafood and meat, according to the Food Authenticity Network – another organisation set up following recommendations by the Elliott Review, and created to standardise testing procedures. The most common type of deception was dilution or substitution, followed by botanical origin fraud, inclusion of non-food substances and animal origin fraud.
Alec Kyriakides, an independent food safety consultant who worked as Sainsbury’s head of quality, safety and supplier performance for 28 years, says: “Structurally, there is no doubt the industry in totality is more resilient.” He cites the various bodies set up post-Horsegate, including the Food Industry Intelligence Network, created as a “safe haven” to collect, collate, analyse and disseminate information and awareness of threats. More than 50,000 authenticity tests are conducted and pooled for intelligence-sharing every year.
However, Kyriakides says food scandals tend to be cyclical, with investment in auditing petering out until the next major fraud focuses minds once again. “I would say we’re at the bottom end of the cycle in terms of investment of resources,” he says. “Once you go about 10 years, the corporate memory is lost and whilst the structural elements have strengthened, there’s still that loss of readiness.” He adds that this is coinciding with an increased risk from the runaway inflation that has pushed up not only prices, but the potential profits for fraudsters.
At the same time, the UK has postponed the implementation of post-Brexit border checks on food four times. Chris Elliott, the food safety professor at Queen’s University Belfast who conducted the post-Horsegate review, told the BBC in January: “Rather than actually reinforcing our border – all of those things about taking back control – we now have no control at all. There are no checks and inspections of food coming into the UK. I just think it’s such a glaring hole – it’s a disaster waiting to happen.”
In February, Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers’ Union, accused the Government of a “dereliction of duty” when it came to food crossing our borders. “I think there’s a real risk 10 years on that we forget those lessons of the past,” she said, “and there’s nothing that will bring this country to a standstill quicker than a food scare. That would be disastrous.”
The Chartered Trading Standards Institute says it shares Batters’ concerns: “Trading Standards played a pivotal role in tackling the horsemeat crisis when it emerged in 2013. Since then, funding and staffing levels have declined significantly.” The CTSI says there has been a 50 per cent cut in funding “in many areas” and that the risks posed by Brexit follow years of austerity that have seen regulatory services “cut back to the bone”.
The number of Trading Standards officers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has dropped from 560 in 2012/13 to just 351 today. And council cuts have seen the number of non-microbiological samples taken drop by 79 per cent since 2016, according to the Food Standards Agency.
A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson says: “We back British farmers, which is why we implement strict biosecurity controls on high-risk imports to ensure no products cross our borders which could pose a risk to the industry.
“We stringently monitor emerging outbreaks across the globe, assess any risks to our food supply chain, and work closely with the Food Standards Agency’s National Food Crime Unit to tackle food fraud – while also promoting the sale of home-grown high quality British produce.
“We also have powers to check and seize non-compliant products, and will not hesitate to do so.”
But the enhanced regulatory framework is only as strong as the local police and council officers on which it relies.
Copson says that since the Elliott Review was published: “You’ll have noticed, the public realm has been shrunk year on year, so the kinds of partnerships that are required to be effective still don’t exist. It’s everything that’s been slashed to pieces since 2010. Trading Standards can’t even afford to go and inspect each food premises once a year in many places.”
In short, Brits should be braced for many more culinary counterfeits on their dining tables. As Copson says of the criminals: “If there is large profit to be made, and very low risk, why on earth wouldn’t they do it?”