In early 2013, revelations that horse meat had turned up in a variety of ready-to-eat meals and frozen beef patties sent shockwaves across the United Kingdom and other parts of the European Union as the scandal spread across borders. The UK government responded with an independent investigation by food security expert Chris Elliot and the creation of the National Food Crime Unit in 2014 as part of the Food Standards Agency.
One of the latest endeavors by the NFCU is the launch of a hotline called Food Crime Confidential. It may sound like a noir thriller title or muckraking expose, but the hotline is helping to bust food fraudsters big and small. Since it ‘s debut in June, the NFCU has received around 100 calls a month, according to the head of the unit, Andy Morling.
Morling says the leads have led to investigations by the NFCU and other agencies in the UK; the NFCU only handles cases that are considered major crimes based on “potential health harm, scale of financial gain or loss and geographical scope (a regional, national or international impact). Any leads involving low level crimes are passed on to local government agencies to investigate.
Food crime comes in many forms, says Morling, including mislabeling products (calling imported beef locally produced, for instance) to get a better price, substituting a cheap ingredient or food for a more expensive one to inflate margins (such as switching pollock for cod), or adulterating a product with inferior substances to bulk them up (like adding junk products to spice powders).
The biggest case the NFCU has handled so far involved a dangerous substance called 2,4 dinitrophenol (DNP), an industrial chemical that was being sold as a weight-loss supplement. DNP was attributed to a number of deaths by consumers, many of whom bought the product online. DNP can raise the body’s temperature to extreme levels, basically cooking your insides.
“When at the end of July 2015 a coroner attributed the death of a 21 year old British woman a few months earlier to the consumption of DNP, it was clear that the fledgling NFCU had its first and most serious case to investigate thus far,” Morling tells Modern Farmer in an email. “A total of six young people would go on to die in the UK from the consumption of DNP in 2015 alone.”
The unit launched Operation Sycamore to tackle the illegal sale of DNP, which has resulted in raids in Northern Ireland and London, the arrest of an alleged DNP supplier, and the shuttering of a number of websites that were selling the supplement. Morling says in 2016 there was only one death attributed to DNP and that his unit has been able to disrupt “the domestic supply of DNP in capsule form almost to the point of destruction.”
Food fraud in the UK isn’t small potatoes. Morling says it costs the economy an estimated £6 billion ($7.37 billion) a year, or 3 percent of the gross domestic product, and might be even higher. “Since fraud is designed to be hidden, the true scale of food crime is unknowable,” he says.