The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has opened a comment period on proposed additional powers for the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU).

The measures would allow food crime officers to be lawfully on premises and assist with searches, following an arrest by police. This would reduce the need for support from local authorities and the police. 

NFCU currently relies on an agreement with the National Police Chiefs’ Council. If the unit is granted section 18 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) powers of search and entry, while a police presence is still likely to be needed in case arrests are required, it would help. FSA does not intend to seek access to powers of arrest for food crime officers. 

The hope is that search and entry powers would enable the NFCU to more effectively detect and investigate serious criminal offences such as fraud that may impact the safety or authenticity of food, drink or animal feed. A warrant is not required and evidence relating to offences could be seized.

Potential additional powers
“This additional power of search and entry would be a vital tool to make sure that investigations can be progressed more directly, while also freeing up local police services so their vital resources can be diverted to other priorities,” said Andrew Quinn, acting head of the NFCU.

“At the same time any use of these powers of entry and search will be restrained, focusing on effective regulation to prevent and detect food crime, and subject to robust controls and external scrutiny. We remain committed to using any enhanced powers in a proportionate way that keeps the public safe, with strengthened safeguards and oversight arrangements to guard against their abuse.”

Recent operations have highlighted that not having access to section 18 powers can create a “significant disadvantage” to the ability of NFCU officers to be lawfully on premises and assist with searches following an arrest, according to the consultation.

Relying on partners to use their investigatory powers on the FSA’s behalf can lead to delayed investigations and is organizationally more complex.

Stakeholders in England and Wales can respond to the call until Aug. 6. Separate legislation applies in Northern Ireland and another consultation for this country will be held at a later date. 

It does not apply to Scotland, where Food Standards Scotland’s Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit (SFCIU) is responsible for tackling food crime.

Evidence received in the consultation will inform recommendations made by the FSA to the Secretary of State, who will then decide what happens next.

A past consultation in 2022 sought views on additional powers for the NFCU and responses were mostly supportive. However, since this time, a requirement for other abilities under PACE for NFCU officers was identified. Previously proposed powers covered the capacity to apply for search warrants, seize evidence and interview suspects who are under arrest.   

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