The boss of the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit has spoken of the need for industry input to tackle problems and urged patience for those eager to hear results of operations.
Ron McNaughton, head of the SFCIU at Food Standards Scotland, said food crime is any fraudulent activity that can impact the safety and authenticity of food.
“It has taken us a bit of time to build the unit up to what it is now but we are operational in terms of how we work and we have a significant case load on the go at the moment. I am not trying to scaremonger anybody that there is lots of food crime, but there is food crime out there and we need to deal with it. The first side of the fence is prevention and businesses need to take a bit of responsibility in protecting themselves,” he told Food Safety News.
“The majority of businesses in Scotland and the U.K. are legitimate and we want to work with those businesses, try and help protect them, but get them to work with us to deter people from trying to commit food fraud. But we can’t rest on our laurels because there are people out there who will try and benefit, they will look for vulnerabilities to commit fraud as it is all about money.”
The unit was established in 2015 and now has 16 members of staff; four focus on food safety, 11 look at food crime and McNaughton leads the agency. An intelligence team began work and the Scottish Food Crime hotline was started in 2016. Another team started in 2017 doing field investigations and enforcement actions.
Not sharing outcomes doesn’t help anyone
McNaughton said balancing the need for privacy in handling cases with going public to prove the unit works is very difficult.
“As soon as you start to speak about ongoing cases it is sub judice so we have had to be very clear. Because we are such a young organization we don’t have the outcomes to show what we have done yet. We have lots of investigations ongoing and are at a stage where we are getting close on some. We have reported two cases to the prosecutor fiscal and we will be able to speak about them once the judicial system has run its course and people will see the outcomes from that,” he said.
“It has been difficult and it is easy to say we aren’t going to tell you anything but that doesn’t help us and it doesn’t help you. Have a bit of patience as the outcomes from our work so far will be coming out, we will be letting people know because it is about raising awareness.”
SFCIU works under a different judicial system than the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) within the Food Standards Agency, which means the law is different in Scotland than in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The unit is funded by the Scottish government through the Food Standards Scotland budget.
“In terms of our investigations that we are looking at, at the moment we would try and utilize common law in Scotland because it gives us more flexibility in terms of powers and also the penalties are greater than using food law. Depending on the seriousness and complexity of a case we might take something under common law fraud as the penalties are greater so it puts a far bigger deterrent to those individuals who might want to try and commit a fraud,” said McNaughton.
FSS was the first regulator to sign an information sharing agreement with the Food Industry Intelligence Network (FIIN), which counts Mondelez, Premier Foods, Kerry Foods, Bakkavor and Arla as members.
“We invested a significant amount of time working with the chairs of FIIN, attending their board and membership meetings. We sit down with FIIN, the NFCU at FSA and Food Safety Authority of Ireland to discuss the quarterly report and hopefully we will look at doing more together,” said McNaughton.
“We worked closely with FIIN in activity under Operation Opson in 2017 where we looked at illegally treated tuna. That would not have been as successful without the input of FIIN and we need to do more of that.
“Working with industry is really important, we have demonstrated we would look after their information and intelligence and that was the key to success. It is a slow process and at the end of the day it is industry working with the regulator and we have a responsibility to act but there is a joint benefit from the arrangement.”
In 2017, SFCIU, FIIN, FSA and 10 European countries investigated tuna illegally treated with nitrites and nitrates.
“Basically it is canning-grade tuna injected with these things and it changes the color to give it the appearance of higher quality and it is sold as fresh tuna. It is about a €200 million ($223 million) fraud every year,” said McNaughton.
“The European coordinated action over a two to three week period seized more than 51 tons of tuna and more than 707 tuna samples were taken, which was 1,430 tests, and 58 indicated they were highly likely to have been illegally treated although none were in the U.K.
“Enforcement action was taken in at least two countries on the back of information we provided to them so it shows how it can work. Fifty-one tons is a drop in the ocean in terms of the actual tuna catch every day but it shows a problem with tuna.”
The agency also launched its own partnership with industry in 2018. It has 17 partners signed up to raise awareness of food crime. Their names are still under wraps but should become public shortly. The first phase ran from November 2018 to March 2019 and the second is underway until the end of November.
“They promote the Scottish food crime hotline in terms of industry using it within their organizations. It allows people to contact us confidentially as it is run in private partnership with Crimestoppers,” said McNaughton.
“So if someone comes across something that is potentially illegal or they are suspicious of in terms of food fraud, pick up the phone and they will speak to someone, provide the information and Crimestoppers will provide that to us within a few hours and we can and will act upon it.”
There is also an online form via the homepage on the Food Standards Scotland website which works in the same way as SFCIU does not know who the source of the information is and Crimestoppers will not provide that but the system allows tracing back to look for clarity. The aim is to increase partners from 17 to promote the hotline and work with the unit on other initiatives to impact food fraud in Scotland.
Crimestoppers is a U.K. charity that allows the public to call a free phone number anonymously and give information on those involved in crime or about a criminal activity. The Scottish Food Crime Hotline is free and confidential and can be reached on 0800 028 7926.
McNaughton said the agency has also been involved in investigations into salt fraud and 2,4-Dinitrophenol (DNP).
“One of the first cases we dealt with was Hebridean Sea Salt. A high quality salt product marketed as 100 percent Scottish salt taken from Loch Erisort and actually it was 80 percent salt from Europe. On our door step we had a Scottish producer committing food fraud. Probably it was about keeping up with supply and demand but it pushed someone who has been a legitimate business person over the line into criminality,” he said.
“DNP is an industrial chemical sold as tablets or capsules used by some people wanting to lose fat quickly, including bodybuilders and those with eating disorders. We recovered a quantity of powder last year that was thought to be DNP and there was a lot of interest from the press.
“What we focused on was raising awareness. How do we stop the next person from taking DNP? It is not safe to consume under any circumstances, it is toxic and not for human consumption. We put information out through the chief medical officer and GPs so they could provide advice to anyone presenting with issues. If you can raise awareness and reduce demand there is no market for the individuals trying to sell it.”
Global Alliance on Food Crime created last year
McNaughton said the food fraud landscape is not fully known and there was still a lot to learn about what the threats are.
“We’ve done two strategic assessments with FSA, the third will be complete by March next year. As we go on we’ve become more informed as our intelligence is better and information coming in from organizations like FIIN is better. There was no real input from industry into the first two assessments but there will be this time so we will have a better picture in terms of what is the focus. We look at what our high, medium and low priorities are as you can’t focus on everything. But having something at low doesn’t mean you don’t do anything about it as it could be an emerging risk.”
Food crime is not something the agency can deal with on its own so partnerships with local authorities including environmental health departments, FSA and police are important, said McNaughton.
“The Global Alliance on Food Crime, which involves the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, is something we are keen to progress; to come together and share information to try and tackle food crime using law enforcement techniques,” he said.
“We have signed a statement of intent and we are at the point of signing an information sharing protocol which will see us sharing good practice and intelligence and hopefully working collectively on specific topics that are an issue for one or more countries. An example in New Zealand is there is more Manuka honey worldwide than is actually produced so that is a big issue.”
McNaughton said the uncertainty around Brexit is an issue but the agency has been preparing.
“What our end goal is for the people and businesses of Scotland, we will try our best to ensure they have the same protection that they had before. The big issue is what will the information sharing landscape be like because we will no longer be part of the European Food Fraud Network or such systems but it is in our and our European partners’ best interests to share information on food fraud,” he said.
“We are close neighbors and we will still be trading with them and there will be vulnerabilities. We may have a fraudster here whose activities are impacting on a country in Europe and vice versa. I would look to continue to utilize the good contacts I have built up over the last four years throughout Europe and have no hesitation of picking up the phone to my contacts wherever they are to exchange information and look to do joint activity.”
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