14 April 1995

Investigators to crack down on black milk…

By Peter Bullen

GOVERNMENT lawyers will consider prosecuting a number of dairy farmers after Easter for selling milk on the black market.

For weeks Intervention Board and MAFF investigators have been compiling dossiers on milk producers suspected of the illegal trading. Reports of quota-dodging, black market milk deals started circulating last year in Derbyshire before spreading through Staffordshire, Cheshire and other counties.

Alarmed by the widespread rumours the Intervention Board opened a free "fraud phoneline" which MAFF said received an "unencumbered stream of good quality intelligence information" from a total 140 calls.

The genuine sounding calls were investigated by a specialist team made up of members of the Intervention Boards anti-fraud unit and MAFFs investigation branch. All of them are experienced officers with a long track record of investigating fraud and collecting the evidence needed to start criminal proceedings, according to junior farm minister Michael Jack.

The minister went to the Intervention Boards HQ in Reading to meet investigators and to check on the "painstaking process" of compiling evidence.

Later he described the process as "very complex indeed". But complexity was not a barrier to progress and they were fully aware of the importance of bringing cases to court as soon as possible, he added.

MPs were given details of how the milk scam worked just before the Easter recess. Congletons Tory MP Ann Winterton said there were a number of "milk rings" where a tanker arrived to take milk direct from a farm.

It was sold, sometimes unpasteurised and often through a chain that was unsupervised by the usual quality and hygiene control mechanisms, to retailers and caterers in other areas.

Farmers were able to increase their income through the sale of such "black" milk while also avoiding the penalties that might otherwise be imposed upon them for exceeding the production limits set by their milk quotas, she said.

"If the quota regime is not enforced fairly, the orderly marketing of milk will break down; great strains will be placed on the industry, and our reputation in Brussels for the enforcement of regulations would be tarnished," she said.

Public health was also being jeopardised by black marketeers, since their equipment and storage conditions could not be properly monitored.

There operated entirely outside the normal hygiene and environmental health regulations.