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Elliot Review into ‘Horsegate’ | New Food Crimes Unit

The recent horsemeat scandal has brought Food Law into the spotlight as consumers call for increased regulation and prosecution of those who are seen to be responsible for failures in the integrity of the food supply chain. The appearance of Horse DNA in meat products, ready meals and school food resulted in calls for prosecution of food crime known as ‘procurement fraud’, but the complex nature of the supply chain may provide a barrier to enforcement action.

The immediate effect however is that the debate on the cruel production of food by factory farming has been renewed, resulting in calls for an end to the industrial production of meat, fish and eggs around the world. The growth of accreditation schemes may prove more effective than prosecution in the long run.


Following the public concern over food crime by the appearance of horsemeat in the food supply chain, the government appointed Professor Chris Elliot to lead an independent review into the integrity of food supply networks and the interim report was published on 12th December 2013. The initial recommendations from the review suggested a systems – based approach to tackling food fraud and recommended a ‘zero tolerance for food fraud where minor dishonesties are discouraged and the response to major dishonesties is punitive. The review also called for enhanced resilient sustainable laboratory services and clear leadership and coordination of investigations and prosecutions.  √جª¬ø

Tuesday January 14 2014 was the anniversary of the first UK contamination coming to light. Parliament heard on 13 January this year that ‘Lessons remain to be learned about how horsemeat came to contaminate UK foodstuffs’, from  Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee Chair Anne MacIntosh.

Professor Elliot identified a worrying lack of knowledge regarding the extent to which criminal networks have infiltrated the food industry. These networks have begun to see the potential for huge profits with low risks, leaving the food industry and consumers vulnerable.  Although he concluded that UK consumers have access to perhaps the safest food in the world, the food industry’s own testing for horse DNA identified contamination in 1% of UK samples and over 4% in Europe. The UK food and beverage market in 2012 was estimated by Defra to be worth £188bn, so there are rich pickings for the criminals. The European Commission have taken a proactive stance by establishing a new food fraud unit within DG SANCO the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers.

The report uses Key Definitions:

Food Fraud is defined by Europol and Interpol as ‘the deliberate placing on the market, for financial gain, foods which are falsely described or otherwise intended to deceive the consumer. Food Fraud becomes crime when it no longer involves a few random acts by ‘rogues’ within the food industry but becomes an organised activity perpetrated by groups who knowingly set out to deceive and or injure those purchasing a food product.√جª¬ø

Food Authenticity is about food offered for sale or sold is of the nature, substance and quality expected by the purchased. Authenticity can be a particular issue for faith groups or consumer with particular food preferences who do not want to purchase products with certain ingredients.        √جª¬ø

The Report details the following steps:

·         Zero Tolerance means new offences, eg if meat is labelled as low fat beef from England if the meat is not from England or is from another animal the sale should be considered dishonest .

·         The Food industry should develop a scheme called ‘Know your Supplier’ which is more than ‘waving a piece of paper to demonstrate due diligence’.

·         The culture of ‘adversarial procurement of products across the supply chain’ which has contributed to a belief that the lower price the better and bonuses are awarded for such delivery must be abolished.

·         Introduction of an obligation on a purchaser to prove that they had no reasonable grounds for suspicion in cases where counterfeit or adulterated products have been purchased.

·         Increased market surveillance techniques including ‘web crawling’ services to be supervised by the FSA.

·         Accreditation bodies should develop new standards that cover traders and brokers who are currently subject to little scrutiny.

·         New ‘tamper-evident’ seals are needed at every stage in the transport business to prevent the extent of risk of food crime during the transportation process.√جª¬ø√جª¬ø√جª¬ø√جª¬ø√جª¬ø√جª¬ø

The report then conducts an analysis of the regulatory landscape prior to the ‘Horsegate’ scandal. The explanation for the failure to prevent and prosecute seems to be that recent austerity cuts have resulted in ‘combining services and finding ever greater efficiencies’ in local authority food enforcement.√جª¬ø

Clearly, food crime was low on the agenda of the main prosecuting authorities before the scandal, The SFO [a small highly specialised Government Department that prosecutes cases of serious or complex fraud) clearly is not interested in the subject, declining to be the ‘lead force’ but prepared to help out on a ‘case by case’ basis. The Metropolitan Police contend that ‘there are other agencies that could and should be better placed to tackle food fraud’. The City of London Police who launched an investigation into how food products became adulterated with horsemeat in May 2013 have clearly thrown in the towel, saying,√جª¬ø

‘ As a consequence of our investigation into the discovery of horse meat in the human food chain we have developed some specialist understanding of this type of crime and can see that there may be a legitimate role for police in partnership with other agencies, but given the range and nature of our core responsibilities, we could not realistically be the lead agency.’√جª¬ø

As the report concludes, prior to the City of London Police accepting the case, the investigation was being coordinated by the FSA and conducted by regulatory agencies who had no experience in tackling complex organised crime, a gap that ‘needs to be filled’! 

Food Crime now falls under  HM Governments Serious Organised Crime Strategy, published in October 2013 which echos four strands of counter – terrorist strategy: Pursue, prevent, protect and prepare. Unfortunately, the £24bn estimate of serious organised crime does not include food crime. The new National Crime Agency are apparently ‘ very interested in information regarding the involvement of organised crime in food fraud’. It is even proposed that Food Crime is added into the new Government Agency Intelligence Network [Gain] diagram where it seems to have been left off the initial draft as an oversight.√جª¬ø

There is an interesting graphic representation of the GAIN partners that include all agencies including RART, DWP, FACT, Trading Standards but nothing for Food Crime. 

Professor Elliot therefore proposes the establishment of a Food Crime Unit, creating a dedicated staff resource with specialist skills including

·         Knowledge of key food sectors√جª¬ø√جª¬ø

·         Regulatory experience including PACE, intelligence gathering analysis and sharing√جª¬ø

·         Maximising strategic effectiveness within available resources

·         Undertaking complex regulatory and food crime related investigations.

√جª¬ø√جª¬øThe response to the review has been at best mixed. Not surprisingly, the industry representatives such as the British Meat Producers Association noted and welcomed the report’s statement that ‘UK consumers have access to perhaps the safest food in the world’ whereas the English Beef and Lamb sector body EBLEX went further suggesting that we should embrace new available tools and science that may help improve traceability and provide information on provenance, stressing the value of the Red Tractor and Quality Standard Mark assurance schemes. Red Tractor have recently released a new ‘made with Red Tractor’ Logo for supermarket ready meals to highlight that 100% of the meat or poultry is Red Tractor Assured.√جª¬ø 

Many commentators feel however that the report fails to deal with the main issue that underpin the scandal, the international growth othe US style  mega –dairies, chicken and beef ‘factories’ and fish farms. The statistics are frightening, for example Central Valley in California is home to the biggest concentration of mega dairies in the world pumping out nearly $6 billion work of milk every year and producing as much waste in the form of dung and urine as 90 million people. Worldwide, 55 billion chickens are reared for meat, with nearly 75% factory farmed.

The drive to produce cheap food results in vast production of grain and soya required to feed the animals, estimated at a third of the world’s entire cereal harvest and 90% of its soya. For example, 18 million hectares of Argentina’s arable land has been turned over to genetically modified [GM] crops. Most of the cattle ranching in Argentina has been forced off the land into intensive fattening systems called ‘Feedlots’ where the cattle are fed on a diet of concentrated feed and antibiotics and swiftly transformed into meat.√جª¬ø√جª¬ø

 The main result of this explosion in factory farmed cheap meat, is the reduction in the nutritional value of the food with a resultant soaring fat content, described by one expert as ‘fat production not meat production’. Professor Michael Crawford argues that intensively reared farm animals are effectively ‘selected for obesity’ with no exercise, the result is meat ‘marbled’ with excess fat . Research into fatty cuts of meat in pies and sausages shows a growth in saturated fat content and less omega- 3, necessary to control heart disease and arthritis due to modern farming methods. Free range eggs can have double the amount of vitamin E, vital to fight disease.

The growth of assurance schemes



It is too early to detect whether or not the increased awareness of what consumers are actually eating on their dinner plates or in their fast food containers will drive a change in the way in which food is produced and distributed through the food chain. The growth of environmental assurance schemes such as LEAF (that promotes integrated farming with the emphasis on complete environmental enhancement as well as environmental protection) and the Soil Association and Organic Farmers and Growers that focuses on the avoidance of the use of pesticides and GM ingredients in farming with effective labelling will probably achieve more in the long run, than new enforcement initiatives by the underfunded prosecution authorities who struggle to compete with the supermarkets and international food producers who now dominate the industry.


See Farmagedeon The True Cost of Cheap Meat   Phiilip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott    Bloomsbury 2014

The authour is a regulatory barrister at St Pauls Chambers Leeds and Gough Square Chambers London, specialising in the prosecution and defence of Food Safety offences, in particular Weights and Measures, Packaged Goods Regulations and the Defence of Due Diligence.

Originally posted 2014-03-04 00:00:00.

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