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Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks

Volume 572: debated on Thursday 12 December 2013

On 4 June 2013, Official Report, column 92WS, I informed the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I had asked Professor Chris Elliott to carry out an independent review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks following the horsemeat fraud. I would like to inform the House that Professor Elliott published his interim report today, it is available at: http://www.gov.uk/government/publications and copies are being placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The report recognises UK consumers have some of the safest food in the world. It highlights the key characteristics of a food supply network which protects consumers and enhances the reputation of the British food industry and in particular the steps needed to deal with the threat of food fraud.

My right hon. Friend and I welcome the interim report which affirms the complex nature of food fraud, with its possible links to serious organised crime. The horsemeat fraud earlier this year demonstrated the international context and complexity of food crime.

Significant action is already being taken to prevent and identify food crime. We have increased unannounced inspections of meat cutting plants. We are working with the European Commission and other member states to establish an EU-wide food fraud unit. We are undertaking a study to test that products which are labelled as from the UK are genuine. We have increased Food Standards Agency (FSA) funding to £2 million to support local authorities’ delivery of the national co-ordinated programme of food sampling.

The UK Government continue to work closely with the European Commission, other European member states and Europol to share information to strengthen reporting mechanisms for food fraud. We are already working with the European Commission to identify further targeted sampling programmes and how they might be implemented. I am bringing the interim report to the attention of the European Commission as its findings can contribute to activity to combat food fraud at European-level as well as in the UK.

Professor Elliott’s report recognises the leading role of the food industry, placing responsibility for delivering a food supply to consumers which is safe, resilient and free from crime, firmly on food businesses. EU food law makes it clear that it is the responsibility of food business operators to ensure that the food they sell is safe and is as described. The need for a more standardised audit process and the need for a balance between random and routine testing, reflect concerns expressed during the horsemeat fraud incident. The food industry undertakes a rigorous testing programme to ensure food authenticity. For horsemeat alone, the results of over 31,000 tests have been reported to the Food Standards Agency over the past nine months, none of which post incident have tested positive. During the incident less than 1% of tests of beef products in the UK were positive for horsemeat, compared to over 4% in the Europe-wide testing programme. The Government will continue to work with food businesses and local authorities responsible for enforcement to ensure measures are effective and not burdensome. We are already working with the sector to generate better food fraud intelligence by identifying barriers and solutions to intelligence sharing. This includes work being led by the FSA to develop a new intelligence hub to improve its capability to identify and prevent threats to food safety and integrity, based on an approach used by police.

There are a number of recommendations for Government, for example on intelligence gathering, enforcement and laboratory capacity. This is an interim report. The Government will be interested in views from interested organisations on these, as we consider them and how they might work in practice before taking a definitive decision on any implementation. Significant action is already under way to address the threat of food crime and the Government want to ensure Professor Elliott’s review builds on the good work already being done to ensure that British food is not just among the safest in the world but also the most authentic.

This interim report provides a foundation for further discussion between the Elliott review, the food industry, Government and others, on how to effectively address the threat of food crime. The report makes clear that food crime prevention is essential to maintaining consumer trust and that this is something on which we must all work together to ensure the integrity of our food supply networks.

Professor Elliott will be working further on these issues in the coming months, with the Government, food businesses and others to strengthen the evidence base as he finalises his recommendations.

I look forward to updating the House on Professor Elliott’s final report in the spring.