Animal by-products, origin declarations, and potatoes are some of the topics on the radar of the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), according to the agency’s annual update.

Major risks are the conflict in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis in the UK. For the latter, intelligence is pointing to cost-cutting practices by businesses, mostly in smaller-scale establishments, which may lead to fake or unsafe products being offered to consumers or other companies.

NFCU action from 2021 to 2022 included closing websites that sold the toxic chemical 2,4- dinitrophenol (DNP) for human consumption. Operation Atlas, which began in June 2020, investigated the sale of DNP and other drugs on the dark web. Jack Finney was jailed for two years after pleading guilty to offenses related to selling DNP. Also, a consultation around including DNP in the Poisons Act has now concluded.  

In Operation Aspen, ongoing since November 2019, a charging decision was received in October 2022 against one person in relation to conspiracy to commit European Distribution Fraud. The defendant is the director of a cold store to which large volumes of stolen food items valued at several hundred thousand pounds are known to have been delivered.  

Four defendants have been charged with offenses including conspiracy to commit fraud by diverting animal by-products back into the human food chain as part of Operation Bantam, which started in October 2020. Evidence against two more people is being reviewed. The planned trial date is July 2023. The prosecution is led by a local authority in London but NFCU has been part of the investigation. 

In Operation Pearl, the NFCU helped Chichester District Council tackle the harvesting and sale of shellfish from beds that were classed as unsafe for human consumption. This resulted in the seizure and destruction of illegally harvested items and identifying businesses that received products.

Examples of ongoing investigations
Operation Endeavour involves an individual who obstructed officials during an unannounced inspection. The manager of the business is accused of delaying entrance to the site, whilst employees could be seen moving items. The defendant entered a not-guilty plea at Magistrates Court in September and is scheduled to appear in court again this month.

Another investigation involves the directors of a company responsible for selling large volumes of pre-packed meat to a UK supermarket, which claims to only sell British products. Operation Hawk has revealed the business sold products from South America and Europe. It has involved the review of around 1.3 million documents. 

Operation Blackthorne is looking at the directors of a company responsible for smoking fish products. They are alleged to have supplied a UK retailer with at least 300,000 packs of what was meant to be fresh, RSPCA assured Scottish smoked salmon but was actually frozen Norwegian salmon.

Operation Highland is investigating the directors of a potato supplier. The company is alleged to have sold premium-grade potatoes, which had been substituted with lower-grade ones. NFCU is also helping a local authority in Operation Mantis which involves smokies, or skin-on sheep meat.

The last NFCU assessment of food crime was published in 2020. An update was planned for 2023 but this has been pushed back until at least mid-2024.

While the NFCU is no longer part of the food fraud working group at the European Head of Food Safety Agencies, it is taking part in the Global Alliance on Food Crime.

More powers and external review
Work to get further powers, including under the Police and Criminal Evidence (PACE) Act, is ongoing. They would include the ability to apply for search warrants, seize evidence and interview arrested suspects. Food crime officers would not be able to make arrests.  

A consultation on the topic covering England and Wales found 20 respondents were supportive of the move but wanted oversight to ensure the appropriate use of such capacities.  

A theme in replies was that additional powers are needed by the unit and will enable it to operate more effectively. The NFCU would also be better placed to lead the response to food fraud and it would reduce reliance on external law enforcement and local authority partners.

Finally, an external review of the NFCU has made five recommendations and found the FSA is the correct agency to house the UK food crime response.

Reviewers gathered evidence from 28 focus groups, meetings with 40 external stakeholders, an online survey with 1,000 businesses and local authorities, reviewing documents, and speaking with 80 members of FSA staff, including NFCU officers.

Findings include the fact that NFCU is hamstrung by not having access to aspects of legislation, which limits the pace of investigations, the threat is underestimated so the profile of food crime should be increased and the unit needs more support and investment to investigate complex frauds.  

Reviewers said expertise from the food sector is currently under-represented in the NFCU and levels of food crime in the UK should be benchmarked.

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