The FSA defines food fraud as being committed when “food is deliberately placed on the market, for financial gain, with the intention of deceiving the consumer”.
This may take the form of selling products unfit for human consumption, such as those of unknown origin or which are past their sell-by-date; or misrepresenting food in some way, for example by substituting cheaper alternatives or making misleading statements about its source.
The consumer watchdog Which? claims that the fraudulent food market in the UK has been estimated to be worth £7 billion a year – which accounts for around 10 per cent of the entire market.
But the FSA says that it “does not believe that there is a significant problem in the UK” and is quoted by Which? as saying that the above figures are “speculative”. A spokesperson told FoodNavigator.com that research by the Food Fraud Task Force, an independent committee set up by the FSA to investigate the measures taken to investigate food fraud, showed that the problem is “not widespread”.
However, the indications are that the problem of food fraud may well get worse. The spokesperson told FoodNavigator.com that the credit crunch could lead to a rise in cases.
FoodNavigator.com was told that there was no particular catalyst which inspired the hotline’s creation, but that the FSA is always looking at new ways of doing things, and that it is hopeful the new service will lead to an increase in reports and help to reduce incidents.
The new system is designed to make the reporting of incidents a quick, straightforward process.
It is hoped that the hotline will improve the agency’s ability to help local authorities in investigating cases of food fraud.
The hotline, +44 (0)20 7276 8527, is unstaffed. Any callers who wish to report a case of known or suspected food fraud are put through to an answerphone where they can leave details.
The answerphone will be checked “regularly”, according to the FSA.
The agency promises that all calls are treated “in the strictest confidence” but it encourages callers to the number to leave their contact details in order to facilitate verification and further investigation of reports.
The FSA offers other channels through which people can report food fraud. It offers a food fraud-specific email address and has previously encouraged people to contact it through one of its general phone numbers.
However, this is the first time it has offered a dedicated food fraud number.
The agency also maintains a national food fraud database, set up in 2006, which is used to identify recurring patterns of fraudulent activity.
In 2005, the UK newspaper The Observer reported an investigation which revealed that some producers were passing non-organic food off as organic, which led to a number of prosecutions.
DNA testing performed by scientists at the University of Bangor, commissioned by the FSA in 2002, showed that only 54 per cent of bags labelled as basmati rice contained purely that product. 46 per cent were diluted with inferior products, some by up to 60 per cent.
And in 2000 a gang of meat fraudsters received combined sentences of 18 years after an investigation known as ‘Operation Fox’ revealed that condemned poultry meat was being introduced back into the human food chain through simple changes to paperwork as part of a large-scale fraud that had been going on since the early 1970s.