The Plate Police

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When we think about food crime, many of us consider pineapple on pizza, or adding milk before the tea bag, to be atrocities of the highest order – criminal in fact (in 2017, Iceland’s President even said he’d ban pineapple on pizza if he possessed the power). Joking aside, food crime is a serious issue that has a huge impact on what we consume on a day-to-day basis and can be life-threatening in some cases. 

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is the police force of the food world, responsible for making sure that what lands on our plates is safe for consumption. There are seven categories of food crime: theft, unlawful processing, misrepresentation, adulteration, waste diversion, document fraud, and substitution. The horse meat scandal of 2010 is perhaps the best-known case of adulteration to have hit Europe, with horse and pig DNA being found in low-cost frozen burgers and ready meals. Whilst most cases required lab testing in order to detect the equine meat, some products were easier to identify in that they actually contained microchips originally used to identify the horses. This crime was of a particularly large scale, as not only were a grand total of 4.5 million products affected, but those products were distributed to thirteen different countries, making it a Europe-wide scandal. French authorities believe that the company responsible, Spanghero, made a profit of £430,000 from passing the meat off as beef but if proven guilty this year, they will face a prison sentence and a £1 million fine.

The horse meat scandal dominated the news for weeks, and was a startling insight into how susceptible to manipulation the food supply chain can be. Both companies and consumers became more aware of the threat of food crime following the incident, but it’s still a huge problem in the UK. Other than consumers being left feeling queasy at the thought of what they had eaten, there are no known cases of illness as a result of the horse meat. However, more recent food crime cases could have proven to be fatal. Russell Hume, for example, was the meat supplier for Wetherspoons, Jamie Oliver’s restaurants, and Hilton hotels before the company went into administration in January 2018. FSA allegations that the company was not adhering to proper food hygiene standards drove away business and it was discovered that the company had been labelling their meats with incorrect use-by dates. This led to most companies discontinuing their trading with Russell Hume and also accounted for the mysterious lack of gammon, sirloin, and rump steaks during Wetherspoons’ weekly Steak Club in January 2018.

According to Russell Hume, the FSA’s response was ‘out of all proportion’ and unjustly led to the failure of their company and hundreds of workers losing their jobs. It’s unsurprising that the FSA reacted so strongly to these findings, with the possible effects of consuming out-of-date meat ranging from a sore stomach to serious cases of food poisoning. Again, this is a case that is not known to have caused any major harm, but it’s impossible to say what damage this misrepresentation may have led to had the FSA not intervened when they did.

The FSA is rigorous in checking that food laws are being adhered to, and regularly issues product recalls if it’s believed that a product could be harmful to consumers. Already in April 2019, several big-name products have been recalled due to being deemed unsafe for public consumption, including Greggs’ frozen Mini Sausage Rolls, which were suspected to contain pieces of plastic, and Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey Non-Dairy Ice Cream, which contained undeclared nuts and soya.

Whilst both of these cases are likely to have been honest mistakes somewhere in the food processing, the FSA’s noticing of these errors is pivotal in protecting public health. The correct labelling of food products has become a particularly hot topic following the tragic death of 15-year old Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who ate a baguette from the sandwich chain Pret-a-Manger without knowing that it contained sesame, to which she was severely allergic. Despite its devastating consequences, Pret’s lack of allergen labelling was not considered to be a food crime. Sesame is one of the fourteen allergens which must be named on a product’s packaging, along with other ingredients such as nuts, milk, and cereals containing gluten.

FSA regulations state that only pre-packaged foods must declare their contents and as Pret-A-Manger products are freshly made on the premises every day, there is no legal requirement necessitating the listing of sesame, or any other allergen, as an ingredient. Despite the lack of legal responsibility, Natasha’s death has prompted Pret-A-Manger to re-evaluate how they label their products. The company is currently investing millions of pounds to reform its packaging system, and aims to have every item labelled with all of its ingredients by the end of summer 2019.

Despite the huge impact it can have on our health, food crime rarely makes it to the newspaper headlines, and when it does, it’s usually due to it already having had catastrophic consequences. This goes to show that whilst strict measures are in place regarding what we consume, there is still much to be done in order to make us fully aware of exactly what is in our food.

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