Opinion: Beware the race to the bottom on food standards

Two months ago in France, four men were found guilty of having falsely labelled 500t of horsemeat as beef during the Europe-wide horsemeat incident in 2013. They faced mixed penalties of fines and custodial sentences.

While consumers may think this court case marks the end of poor behaviour in the horsemeat supply chain, this case is not an isolated incident, and certainly won’t be the last.

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As well as the other convictions in the UK associated with the 2013 incident, in 2015 more than 20 people were arrested in Europe in a crackdown on tampering with horse passports and trade in illegal horsemeat.

Then, in 2017, after a Europol investigation, 66 people were arrested across Europe, again for mislabelling horsemeat and selling it as beef, while in October and December 2018 there were further problems with tampering with horse passports.

And earlier this year there was an EU notification again, with regard to “poor traceability records (potential tampering with passports) for horses from the UK and Ireland, slaughtered in Germany”.

Far from isolated events

These examples show that these types of illicit behaviour in our food supply chains are far from isolated events.

Other areas where food crime has been identified around the world include fish, milk, spices and herbs, and alcohol. While not all the food we purchase and consume is affected, there is growing concern over these trends.

There are many types of crime – including adulteration, counterfeiting, smuggling, food trafficking and theft – that businesses need to be aware of and guard against.

The additional funding of the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) is a welcome initiative by the UK government. Individual businesses are undertaking risk assessments and implementing actions to reduce the risk of themselves and consumers being misled or defrauded by others.

But why is it happening so much now? Economic, social and supply pressures can cause stresses that lead to people behaving badly in some sectors of food production.

While some food crime is driven by organised criminal networks, other crime is driven within current supply chains, as there is a constant pressure to keep food affordable for all.

European austerity is clearly also having an impact. Austerity measures were implemented in the EU following the global recession in 2008 and the Eurozone crisis in 2009, and people’s incomes and associated purchasing power are still being affected a decade later.

In response, businesses and consumers need to be aware of the risk of food crime and make sure they are not vulnerable. Consumers expect food safety and high standards in terms of quality and labelling. For them, they are a given.

Food integrity reflects the decisions made in the food supply chain on behalf of others. Businesses are developing risk assessment and management strategies to reduce the likelihood of food crime occurring – but consumers purchasing food are reliant on trust.

Brand value depends on integrity in supply chains and this recent court case also shows the personal impact of not complying with the law.

Louise Manning is a professor at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester

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