Food chain a ‘soft target’ for criminals, FSAI chief warns

Horsemeat scandal a ‘wake-up call’ for Europe on supply of produce

Alan Reilly of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland said the horsemeat scandal was a ‘ wake-up call to Europe that criminals were getting involved in the food chain”. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Alan Reilly of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland said the horsemeat scandal was a ‘ wake-up call to Europe that criminals were getting involved in the food chain”. File photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

There are lots of opportunities for criminality in the food chain which is seen as a “soft target”, the chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has said.

The horsemeat scandal, about which Professor Alan Reilly’s organisation raised the alarm last year, was a “wake-up call to Europe that criminals were getting involved in the food chain and were up to no good,” he said.

There are are many different ways for criminals to put poor food into the supply such as as substandard olive oil being labelled as premium and putting cheap wine into bottles labelled as premium brands, he said.

The length of the food chain means there are lots of opportunities for fraud, he said. If producers are buying their food ingredients from Asia there is no way to check into the plant, he added .

The food industry must “up its game” and take the threat of food fraud and criminal intent “really seriously”, Prof Reilly said. There need to be “robust control systems” for suppliers as have been introduced for meat testing.

He notes that food fraud is “not rampant” in Ireland but “we have to be mindful that there is an opportunity for it to happen,” particularly after the horsemeat scandal, he said.

Food fraud involves produce being put on the market which is deceiving the consumer for finanical gain such as unfit or harmful food or deliberately misdescribed produce.

Following the horsemeat scandal the European Commission “upped its game” with moves afoot to tackle the food fraud issue at European level.

The horsemeat scandal emerged last year when the FSAI found horse DNA in beef burgers sold in some Irish supermarkets, after whuch similar problems were found in other EU countries.

Next year the Commission will begin a programme on the authenticity of fish and honey products with a standardised testing and reporting regime , he said.

It is also going to introduce more severe penalties for food fraud. Up to now the penalty for labelling contraventions was just €30,000 when there was millions to be made on food fraud, he said.

He notes how the new focus on food fraud brings a major shift for food regulators. Food regulation systems have up to now not been geared up to look at food fraud crime but were more focused on sanitation and safety, he said.

“We have to rethink how we look at food control and have to develop systems for taking the threat of food fraud and food crime into the mix,” he said.

The change means working with stage agencies who deal with crime because food inspection bodies are “not trained as forensic scientists” . The FSAI has set a food fraud taskforce including customs and the gardaí.

These new focus on food crime will mean more resources are needed by the FSAI but it is negotiating with government departments to ensure it receives resources needed.

Dr Reilly is speaking today at the 20th International Scientific European Food Law Association (EFLA) Congress in Dublin.