Request for Comments – from the UK National Food Crime Unit

Yesterday the UK Food Standards Agency (UK FSA) opened a request for comments regarding the investigatory powers of the UK National Food Crime Unit (UK NFCU). The focus is on prevention (not just catching food fraud), including new success metrics that focus on reducing the root causes. Submit comments to contribute to the protection of the food supply chain.

NCFU and the New PCSC Act

The spark to action for request for comments is the new “Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022” (PCSC Act) which was passed a month earlier on April 28. The act has several critical points: (1) it formalizes the “investigatory powers upon food crime officers,” and (2) it shifts the NFCU from the Food Agency to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC). Essentially, the NCFU is shifting to a more formal law enforcement entity.

Unlike many of the world’s food fraud government responses, the NFCU’s actions are focused only on food fraud. In contrast to that scope of work, the US FDA Office of Criminal Investigation (OCI) covers products such as food, drugs, vaccines, medical devices, and cosmetics. Also, OCI covers all criminal statutes, including product safety, tax avoidance smuggling, terrorist type acts, and all related illegal activity.

The request for comments is specifically about the expansion of the ability to conduct criminal investigations and make arrests: “The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has today launched a consultation seeking views from the public, public health professionals, and food sector partners on the proposed enhancement of the investigatory powers of the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU).”

The NFCU focuses on food fraud-related crimes, not all food crimes (e.g., food defense, malicious tampering, disgruntled employee sabotage, or terrorist acts): “[The NCFU] role is to detect, investigate and disrupt serious fraud and related criminality within food supply chains, across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

NFCU’s Strategic Focus on Prevention

Modern criminology and crime fighting focus on catching criminals and reducing the opportunity for crimes to occur – crime prevention. The NCFU emphasizes this prevention focus [emphasis added]: “At the same time, any use of these investigatory techniques will be restrained, focusing on effective regulation to prevent and detect food crime, and subject to robust controls and external scrutiny.”

Further, there is a fundamental question about the difficulty of creating new, appropriate success metrics that focus on prevention [emphasis added]: “By consulting on this issue, the FSA is seeking views from stakeholders on whether the powers and safeguards proposed are a justified and proportionate set of measures to enable the NFCU to tackle food crime effectively.”

Enabling the Shift to Prevention

As was covered in detail in Food Fraud Prevention*, “enabling the shift to prevention” for a law enforcement agency is extremely complex. For one, the general success measures are usually reactionary results such as the number of arrests, length of incarceration, or the amount of product seized. To increase the reactionary success metrics, they would focus on “catching” “bad products” and “bad guys.” The traditional reactionary focus would encourage conducting fewer investigations and arrests. On the other hand, efficient and effective prevention would lead to FEWER arrests and FEWER products seized.

The key to enabling the shift to prevention is to adjust the success metrics from reactionary to proactive. This is standard practice for quality management and food safety programs like HACCP. For example, it is important to detect the food-borne illness in the finished product regarding food safety. Still, it is more proactive and efficient to monitor and control the root causes of those problems. We’re not trying to test or catch food safety incidents. We’re trying to prevent them from occurring by monitoring and reducing the root causes.

Takeaway Points

  • The industry comments will continue to emphasize and shape the food fraud prevention focus. While there would need to be a significant shift in the philosophy, this could provide the NCFU with the support of “enabling the shift to prevention.”
  • Reading a request for comments by a government about a food fraud strategy provides insight into questions you could ask yourself.
  • If you deal with the NFCU or operate in the UK market, then do your part by submitting comments.

*Food Fraud Prevention , Spink, 2019, page 62 on “Shifting to Prevention: Why Hasn’t This Been Addressed Proactively Before?” and page 101 “Sidebar: Shift to a Prevention Focus”

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