A review by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has recommended the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) should be given investigatory powers.
The NFCU was set up in 2014 in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, but at the moment it has no powers to investigate wrongdoing, working instead with local authorities and the police to tackle food crime.
The review found a number of issues were hampering food crime detection, such as a lack of training in intelligence gathering and fraud investigation, a lack of officers to deliver complex fraud investigations and a lack of funds for the legal cost of investigations.
“There was broad consensus among all of the key stakeholder groups consulted that the NFCU should have investigative capacity. Industry and consumer representatives wanted an NFCU with teeth to tackle food crime, to protect consumers and the legitimate supply chain and to make some high profile prosecutions to create a deterrent effect”, the review said.
It also highlighted a ‘reluctance on the part of police forces to take a lead on food crime’, blaming competing demands on their resources and the limited public profile of this type of crime.
Other problems uncovered by the FSA included a lack of co-ordination across local authority boundaries and differences in devolved enforcement arrangements.
As well as recommending more investigatory powers, the review suggested the NFCU should be made an arm’s length body of the FSA.
NFU chief food chain adviser Ruth Mason said: “We support the principle of greater investigatory powers being given to the NFCU.
“In light of the decision for the UK to leave the EU, protecting consumers from instances of food crime and particularly food fraud will remain vitally important. As an industry, we need to see a strategy for the NFCU to ensure the right action is being taken on this.
“Additional investigatory powers will go hand in hand with a strong, established strategy.”
If the FSA Board accepts the review’s recommendations, the next stage is to develop a business case and consult with other government departments on more detailed delivery options in 2017.