Alan Reilly, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland writes that the oft quoted phrase; “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” might easily be applied to the food chain, particularly given the renewed attention being paid to food fraud. There are parallels between the recent incidences of food fraud and the malpractices in the food trade in the mid 19th century. Each was followed by new legislation and new arrangements for food control. In 1860, an “Act for Preventing the Adulteration of Articles of Food and Drink” came into force and this was followed in 1875, by the Sale of Food & Drugs Act. This made it an offence to mix, colour, stain or powder any article of food with any ingredient or material, so as to render the article injurious to health, with intent to sell the article in that State, or to sell to the prejudice of the purchaser any article of food which is not of the nature, substance and quality of the article demanded. These provisions are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago, especially given the increasing evidence of counterfeit foods, adulteration or substitution.
The substitution of frozen horsemeat trimmings for frozen beef trimmings uncovered first in Ireland last year is a stark reminder of times past and the menace to consumers and the industry alike, posed by people who set out to deliberately deceive. In the wake of the EU-wide horsemeat incident, the European Commission (EC) and Member States are in the process of strengthening the fight against food crime. Food authorities, police forces and finance authorities are mindful now of the need to work together. The risks to the food supply are no longer those posed by chemical, biological, or physical hazards. Criminal intent or opportunity and intentional violation of the law must be taken into account when assessing risk. Food inspectors have to learn the ways of the criminal and the criminal investigator.
The EC is responding and legal changes are in the pipeline. It has established a special working group of Member States, in which Europol participates, to deal with issues associated with food fraud and to drive the implementation of an action plan on fraudulent food practices. An Administrative Assistance and Cooperation System (AACS) is also being established by the EC which will be an IT network to provide a structured communication mechanism to support the exchange of food fraud information among Member States. The AACS will operate in a similar fashion to the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF), a mechanism for Member States to exchange information when unsafe foods pose a risk to consumer health.
Across the EU, a second programme of sampling and testing the authenticity of processed meat products is underway. This will be followed by further testing programmes for counterfeit honey and the authenticity of fishery products on the market. To this end, a harmonised laboratory testing regime is currently under discussion and monitoring work is expected to get underway in early 2015.
Some EU Member States, such as Italy and the Netherlands, already have dedicated specialist investigative “food police” units dealing with food crimes. They bring a different perspective to the world of food safety, using police techniques such as intelligence gathering, forensic accounting, financial investigation and communications, digital and internet proficiency. The experience of these countries is now being examined for relevance elsewhere in the EU. Of course Ireland is not without some experience in this field. For many years the Special Investigation Unit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has been active. This Unit has been to the forefront of investigating food crime and enforcing legislation on such matters as animal remedies and animal identification, in respect of the small subset of those involved in the sector who attempt to profit from illegal activities.
More recently in Ireland, the FSAI established a Food Fraud Task Force (FFTF) consisting of representatives from national agencies across different enforcement arms of the State. The FFTF is an advisory group which acts as a coordination and networking group where intelligence and research can be shared at national and international level. The work of the FFTF includes raising awareness, improving mechanisms for monitoring and surveillance and training of enforcement officers. The Special Investigation Unit and the Gardaí are part of the FFTF. The aim is to better coordinate the activities of all stakeholders to provide more enhanced levels of protection.
These new developments should strengthen the work of the considerable inspection and laboratory services already engaged in the enforcement of food law, whose work is coordinated and overseen by the FSAI through the service contract process. The combined work of the staff in the various official agencies ensures the safety and authenticity of food, from primary production to the sale and marketing of food to the consumer. The official agencies and the FSAI also cooperate with the Custom and Excise Service of the Revenue Commissioners and the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation of An Garda Síochána, leading to the recent detection of the marketing of counterfeit vodka and the fraudulent re-labelling of foods with new “use by” dates.
While official food control services are regrouping in response to the new threats to the food supply, the food industry has to do likewise and assess potential food fraud threats.
Changes are already taking place. Over the past year, retailers and the meat processing sector introduced meat speciation testing for all processed meat products as part of their routine food safety management programmes. This is a welcome development. The industry also needs to ensure the validity of information provided on labels and for guaranteeing the authenticity of ingredients used in the manufacture of foods.
Uncovering the horsemeat scandal was a clear reminder of times past, of the origins and reasons for our food laws, the need for continuing vigilance and the importance of learning the lessons of history.