12 January - 20 June 2016

Four years after horsegate

A “horsegate” update published in Nature Food of Science has examined whether the Elliott Review, which addressed changes necessary to tackle food fraud, has been implemented by industry and government, four year after the horsemeat incident of 2013.

A “horsegate” update published in Nature Food of Science has examined whether the Elliott Review, which addressed changes necessary to tackle food fraud, has been implemented by industry and government, four year after the horsemeat incident of 2013.  The horsemeat incident ("horsegate"), broke in January 2013, after normal proactive monitoring activities by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland found horsemeat in beef meat.  Subsequent testing found beef products had been adulterated with horsemeat across the EU.

Six months after the incident a review by Professor Chris Elliott of Queen’s University Belfast was published.   The Elliott Review, commissioned by the UK government, highlighted many recommendations with the final report containing eight pillars of recommendations.  This update by Brooks et al. including Professor Elliott examines each recommendation and the progress made in the last four years.

The first pillar is "consumer first." Following horsegate, consumer trust decreased to “an all-time low”. Sales of processed meat decreased with some consumers stopping purchasing meat altogether.  The Elliott Review recommended that consumer needs become a priority.  Since horsegate, “Professor Elliot believes food retailers attitudes have changed drastically, with transparency now a key trend.”  An example of this is Tesco who now provides information on meat product testing online. A Which? Campaign "Stop Food Fraud" which received 37,000 consumer signatures has also been suggested as a key campaign in restoring consumer trust.

The second pillar, zero tolerance, was recommended to ensure "industry were encouraged to question whether some procurement deals were too good to be true."  It suggested that before horsegate "a little bit of cheating” within the meat industry was considered normal practice.  An example of this is claiming Polish beef is British beef.  Industry is now aware that they are being monitored and rigorous testing procedures are in place, meaning greater consequences for businesses. 

The third pillar focused on intelligence gathering and the sharing of information. Since horsegate the Food industry Intelligence Network has been set up, covering all commodities and around 60% of all food sold in the UK. The network allows companies to share information and test results via a legal firm.  However this current update states “despite the significant steps the industry has taken in sharing information and intelligence with each other, information is still not shared with the regulator or government department as recommended by the Elliott Review, due to issues surrounding confidentiality, competition and fear of implication.” Another network, The Food Fraud Network, works with Interpol and Europol to target organised food crime networks. However, the updates notes that this information is not shared with any other party.

The fourth pillar is laboratory services.  Since horsegate, the number of companies offering meat testing has increased although "Professor Elliott is concerned that wider food surveillance infrastructures on other products and commodities such as herbs and spices is lacking."

The fifth pillar, auditing, was recommended as food fraud within auditing was found to be poor. Traders and brokers were identified as an area of vulnerability.  The BRC standards for Agents and Brokers has been developed which allows Agents and Brokers to be certified.  However the update notes this "does not take into account the specific nature of the meat industry."  In 2015 The IMTA Good Trading Practice Guide to food prevention "sought to identify practical steps which companies could take to strength their resilience to fraud threats."  This is available to the International Meat Traders Association and non-members. BRC have also developed an add-on to their module on Food Safety Standards specifically for meat companies. 

Another recommendation by the Elliott Review was that regulators and industry work together to create an auditing training platform.  The update notes a number of issues. "To be forensically food fraud aware" has a number of difficulties such as training material cannot “enter the public domain”. Since horsegate the number of audits have increased. The update states "there have been significant steps taken by food retailers to move to an unannounced platform as recommended by The Elliott Review."

Pillar six, ‘government support’ has led to high level officials in FSA, Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs and Department of Health, meeting bi-annually.   At the start of horsegate it was unclear who would lead, the FSA or DEFRA.  The seventh pillar of leadership was therefore recommended and in December 2014 the National Food Crime Unit placed within the FSA was set up. 

The eighth pillar, crisis management was recommended so that effective mechanisms are put in place to deal with future food crime incidents.  The update suggests that whilst "significant improvement in the understanding of fraud and the application of fraud prevention have been made in industry and government it is important to note that fraud hasn’t gone away, just changed."

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