Top fraud threats to red meat supply chain

The four top food crime threats to the red meat supply chain have been highlighted by the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) in a report just published.

The paper, written for the FSA and Food Standards Scotland, examined and reviewed the threats facing the UK’s £200 billion food and drink industry. 

According to the report, opportunities for dishonesty within the red meat industry exist throughout the supply chain. The issues facing the sector were summarised under four major areas of vulnerability: livestock theft and poaching; illegal slaughter; misdescription and diversion of animals; and species substitution.

Livestock theft and poaching

The review recognised that, although the theft of livestock is a serious crime in itself, it can be a clear precursor to food fraud, “as animals entering the food chain in this way will inevitably breach traceability regulations”.

According to the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) Mutual Rural Crime Survey 2015, 90,000 animals were stolen in 2014. The value of livestock stolen in greater quantities has reportedly risen over 20% since 2010, with the financial loss for 2014 estimated to be £7m.

Between July 2014 and July 2015, the FSA reported that one Welsh police force claimed that financial losses due to livestock thefts equalled £126,000, while another police force in the north of England said roughly £250,000 had been lost as a result of sheep theft over the 10 months to June 2015.

As the FSA highlighted in the report, this could potentially lead to food hygiene risks. The organisation said that it was highly likely that stolen livestock would be processed through illegal channels, so that offenders avoided detection. It is believed that the premises and practices inflicted on stolen animals would probably violate food hygiene regulations.

In addition to these hygiene concerns, poached stock might be moved over relatively large distances, which raises further questions about the health risks caused by the way in which the meat is stored and transported.

Illegal slaughter

“Illegal slaughter is the processing of an animal for human consumption through unapproved premises,” stated the report. Where this was being practised, the guarantee that hygiene standards and animal welfare have been respected could not be confirmed, meaning the end-product would pose greater health risks for the consumer.  

Livestock at risk of illegal slaughter were often animals which were unfit for human consumption by virtue of age.

The FSA acknowledged that were are possible loopholes in this violation, meaning that abusers could go undetected. “On-farm slaughter can be legal when animals are slaughtered for the owner’s personal use. This does not include where a professional slaughter person conducts the kill on the farm under the owner’s supervision.

“This exemption can be abused by claiming slaughter is for personal use, but then surreptitiously selling the meat, or by claiming that the animals were sold while alive, so the slaughter was, in effect, for the customer’s personal use. The practice has been linked to the selling of meat via farmers’ markets, to butchers or to associates.”

Misdescription and diversion of animals

The FSA claimed that this violation could lead to “animals unfit for human consumption entering the food chain through legitimate slaughter routes”.

Such practices in the UK could lead to food-related risks overseas. As an example, the FSA highlighted that issues had been identified relating to the movement of horses from the UK to France and Belgium.

Although horses are able to be moved abroad, provided that they have the appropriate documents, concerns have been raised that live horse exports are being falsely declared for leisure purposes. The animals are then thought to be taken for slaughter, without proper regard to any veterinary medicine residues within the horses.

There are also issues concerning misdescription regarding cattle. In England, Wales and Scotland, cattle slaughtered on-farm should have their passports returned to the British Cattle Movement Service, while in Northern Ireland, births, deaths and movements are registered online via the Animal and Public Health Information System (APHIS). However, the FSA said that it was known that some farmers retained and unlawfully reallocated passports or ear-tags to other live animals.

As a consequence, issues are formed determining the suitability of the animal entering the food chain, as the passport or ear tag may not be reflective of the animal’s health and movement. This could also lead to traceability issues and uncertainty as to whether or not the meat is safe for human consumption.

Species substitution

“Meat species substitution in catering continues to be observed through local authority sampling,” said the report. “This predominantly relates to the replacement of lamb with beef, turkey or pork.” The FSA acknowledged that spicy meals were particularly vulnerable to this crime, as the fraud could be undetectable due to being overpowered by other powerful flavours.

Though this rarely posed health risks, it could have a “detrimental impact upon the observance, by individuals or particular faiths, or religious dietary practices”.

This was recognised as the most common form of food fraud experienced by UK customers, although the point at which the criminal activity occurred was not always clear. Research has shown that there have been instances where the restaurant owner knowingly served a dish as lamb when another meat had been used as a substitute. There have also been examples of where the restaurant has been sold a product not realising that a substitution has occurred.

The assessment

The review suggested that although a wide range of vulnerabilities and risks were present throughout the food industry, little evidence implied that crime groups had so far made substantial inroads into UK food supply chains.

The assessment was carried out to:
•    highlight themes and trends in food crime intelligence
•    establish a baseline understanding of the UK food crime threat
•    enable the prioritisation of issues which pose the greatest risk of harm
•    identify gaps in understanding

“This assessment confirms that while the UK continues to have some of the safest and most authentic food in the world, we must remain vigilant to ensure we keep it that way,” said Andy Morling, head of NFCU.

“The NFCU was established in the wake of the horsemeat incident. That incident came at a huge cost to the UK food industry, not just financially but also in terms of reputation. It illustrated why it is vital for the food industry, law enforcements agencies and regulators to work together to combat the threat of food crime.”

To achieve results, the unit worked together with local authorities, police force and other agencies across government, in the UK and abroad.

“We’ve come a long way in our first year, but this assessment makes clear that there is much more to be done,” he added.

“For many reasons unique to this form of crime, intelligence about food criminals is in short supply. While we are working hard to gather information, we are calling on those working in the food industry to report suspicions to the NFCU to help fill these gaps. I’m confident that they have a wealth of knowledge and information, which will help the unit ensure that UK food supply remains protected. I would like to reassure the public and industry that we will handle all such information with the utmost sensitivity.”

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