Robust food fraud response offers customers hope

EVER since the horsemeat incident of early 2013, producers have been working in partnership with others across the food supply chain, and its regulators, to identify threats to the authenticity of food.

A number of different reviews into the incident have followed, including two commissioned by the Scottish Government.

To date these reviews have scrutinised the response of government and enforcement bodies, although they have also addressed lessons that can be learned to protect producers and their customers from food fraud.

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The latest of these reviews was carried out by Professor Chris Elliott from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, Belfast, and was published before Christmas. He has made 48 interim recommendations which will now be refined ahead of the final report which will be published this spring.

Of course that thinking has not been confined to reviews completed or commissioned by government and enforcement bodies. Industry has also looked hard at how it can protect itself and its customers against food fraud.

From the outset, Professor Elliott makes the point that the UK food industry works hard to deliver safe, competitively priced products for consumers and that its products are some of the safest in the world.

In part, the report reflects the findings of other reviews undertaken this year including the Scudamore Review and the findings from Scotland Food and Drink chairman Ray Jones’ Expert Group report on traceability and labelling in red meat – and there are major similarities in the themes explored.

It then goes on to make a series of recommendations for industry and government. While at times some sections of Prof Elliott’s report makes for uncomfortable reading, many of the themes he draws out mirror closely the emerging thinking at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF).

Our plan of action, published on the same day as Prof Elliott’s report, sets out clearly how FDF and the food and drink manufacturing sector that we represent has stepped up efforts to tackle food fraud.

Firstly, we engage with producers within our membership on incident prevention and horizon scanning for emerging issues through our well-established network of technical and regulatory committees. Ensuring the authenticity and safety of our products is a shared priority which unites businesses in our sector.

Beyond manufacturing we maintain an open dialogue with bodies such as the British Retail Consortium, the organisation representing supermarkets, amongst other retailers, to help businesses across the food-supply chain stay alert to potential issues and respond swiftly to minimise newly-emerging risks.

Outside of the UK we work closely with our sister organisation FoodDrinkEurope in Europe and other manufacturing associations such as Grocery Manufacturers’ Association in the US. At the same time our open dialogue with UK and European regulators means that manufacturers are kept informed of potential issues.

FDF is also committed to participating in the anticipated review of the Publicly Available Specification on Defending Food and Drink.

This set of guidelines developed by the Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure in collaboration with The British Standards Institution with input from industry seeks to deter, detect and defeat malicious attacks on the industry and its supply chains and we hope to contribute to discussions about the possible extension of this guidance to cover a wider range of issues. We’re also looking at lessons which can be learned from other bodies, such as the Intellectual Property Office, in respect of horizon scanning and intelligence sharing.

Practically speaking we have also produced a five-step guide to help food producers, large and small, protect their business from food fraud.

The guide offers advice on the key questions which businesses should ask to ensure robust supply chains and help protect themselves from food fraud.

Nearly a year on from the initial discovery of horsemeat in products labelled as containing beef, the food industry and government are already better prepared to deal with threats to the authenticity of supply.

Professor Elliott’s interim findings now provide industry with a solid platform from which to build a joint strategy with government and enforcement bodies to combat food fraud and foster confidence amongst consumers in our food supply.

• Colette Backwell is director of the Scottish Food and Drink Federation