Food fraud is still seen as an easy target for criminals and the authorities are not organised enough to tackle the criminals, the outgoing Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) chief executive Alan Reilly has said.
Prof Reilly said food companies must have a threat assessment procedure in place to identify where the food supply chain could be vulnerable to fraud.
“The longer that food chain, the more things that could go wrong and the more opportunities for criminals to get in and do things like food substitution and animal species substitution, to bulk out products, to dilute down high-value products like olive oil and so on,” he said.
“The food chain is still seen as an easy target for criminals. There is big money to be made in food fraud and at the present moment I don’t think we are organised enough to tackle some of the criminals out there. It does need co-operation across all the agencies of the State, gardaí, customers and the food regulators have to work together to tackle the problem.”
He said the authority was working with its European counterparts in a major clampdown on fraud involving fish and manuka honey.
“We know there are problems in both these areas, in the substitution of lower-value species for higher-value species in the fish chain and the use of lower-quality honey and marketing it as top-quality honey.”
Fraud and deception “Manuka honey is produced in New Zealand and there is probably about 50 times more manuka honey on the world market than is actually produced, so there is fraud and deception there.”
Cod and Dover sole were at risk of fraud because they were expensive white fish and a cheaper white fish such as pangasius could be substituted for them.
“Once you take the head and skin off it’s very difficult to tell the difference, especially if it’s covered in a sauce. That was fundamental to why we did the study on the beef products, because we were aware that consumers couldn’t tell in a shepherd’s pie or a burger or a salami what type of beef was present,” said Prof Reilly.
“And it surprised us all to hear it was horse, and in some cases 100 per cent horse, in some of the lasagnes. ”
He said the industry was doing a lot of animal species tests since the horse meat crisis.
“They don’t want to be caught out again. The large retailers require laboratory testing for the authenticity of species,” he said.
However, last week the UK’s food standards agency reported that one in five samples of lamb takeaway meals were contaminated with other meat such as chicken, beef and pork.
Prof Reilly said individual takeaways would not be in a position to carry out the type of testing that an international retailer could do: “A small takeaway is not going to do the testing that would be required on authenticity and they have to buy on face value. But if you are buying something that’s labelled lamb curry it really should be lamb.” And he warned that standards were different outside the EU.
"When it comes to imports into the European Union from third countries we do have to be very vigilant in looking at the safety and authenticity of foods and materials such as packaging and kitchen ware. "
In recent days, Chris Elliott who led the British government's inquiry into the horse meat scandal, expressed fears that cheap peanuts and almonds were being substituted for cumin seeds and said the implications for nut allergy sufferers were very serious. However, Prof Reilly said there was no evidence at this time to suggest nuts were being substituted for cumin in the food chain.
“From time to time, accidental cross-contamination can occur and if this happens the mislabelled products are recalled. The FSAI will work closely with its counterparts in the UK in the interest of protecting public health to ensure that the problem identified in the UK does not happen again,” he said.
Prof Reilly will step down as FSAI chief executive next week. His next role will involve working with the UN’s food and agriculture organisation to help set up a food safety authority in
. He will also be working with the
World Health Organisation