A major UK supermarket’s former meat supplier is being investigated for British beef fraud in news that has echoes of the 2013 horsemeat scandal.
First revealed in farming trade magazine Farmers Weekly, pre-packed sliced meat and deli products labelled as “best British beef” were actually sourced from other countries, according to the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU). We now know the supermarket where the incident happened was northern retailer Booths, which has insisted it is not being investigated.
All the offending products have been removed from sale. The NFCU, which is part of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) said it had acted in order to “protect the consumer”. While it is not being classed as a food safety issue in this case, food fraud can be dangerous to people’s health.
It comes as supermarkets have faced scrutiny in recent weeks about how their supply chains work. The food shortages that have hit tomatoes and several other key fresh produce items have raised concerns about whether retailers are focusing enough on product availability over prices - an issue that has been thrown under the spotlight by bad weather and the UK inflation crisis.
So, what do we know about the food fraud allegations currently being levelled at a leading supermarket - and what was the 2013 Horsemeat Scandal?
What is the beef fraud investigation about?
The British beef fraud investigation being carried out by the NFCU centres on how falsely labelled meat came to be stocked in Booths in 2021.
According to the investigators, they are looking at how packs of pre-sliced meat and deli items came to be labelled as being “best British beef” despite having been sourced from Europe and even as far afield as South America. Farmers Weekly says around 1.3 million documents concerning the sale of “large volumes” of meat are being reviewed by the public agency.
Andrew Quinn, deputy head of the NFCU, said: “The retailer was notified on the same day that we took action against the food business suspected of the fraud and immediately removed all affected products from their shelves. The retailer continues to work closely and co-operatively with the NFCU investigation to progress the case against the supplier. This is not a food safety issue but a matter of food fraud.
“Any fraud investigations of this nature take time to go through evidence and bring to any outcome, including any potential prosecution. We take food fraud very seriously and are acting urgently to protect the consumer.” Farmers Weekly quoted insiders who warned it would be “naive” to believe the problem will not extend to other food businesses.
While the supermarket at the centre of this case was originally unnamed, it was revealed by the Guardian on Friday (10 March) to be Booths. The retailer primarily operates in northern England where it is unofficially known as the ‘Waitrose of the North’.
In a statement given to the newspaper, the upmarket chain said: “At the point of being made aware of the potential issues in 2021, Booths acted instantly, removing all relevant products from sale, and ceased trading with the supplier with immediate effect.
“Booths would like to confirm that fresh meat, poultry and game products are entirely unaffected by this investigation and that with the exception of the limited selection of cooked meat products impacted in 2021, Booths is absolutely confident in its British-only meat commitment. Issues of provenance, traceability, honesty and authenticity are of the highest importance to Booths and the business has been fully cooperating with and supporting the work of the NFCU for the past 18 months.”
The British Retail Consortium (BRC), which represents most of the UK’s major supermarkets, also sought to reassure consumers who have been worried by news of the investigation. “Retailers work hard to ensure that all products are labelled correctly to meet legislation. They also employ a range of policies and controls to ensure that their products are safe and as-described to customers,” BRC food policy advisor Devina Sankhla told NationalWorld.
Why does food fraud matter?
The reason why food fraud matters is that we ultimately need to be able to trust that the food we eat is both safe and is what it says it is. If this form of crime is taking place in the UK’s food system, it raises questions about how rigorous supermarkets are in making sure their supply chains are safe and whether UK laws are tough enough to protect public health.
There are seven different forms of food crime, according to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) - the public body tasked with ensuring our food system is safe. The ‘British’ beef fraud scandal could fit into four of them:
- Misrepresentation: marketing or labelling a product to make false claims about its quality, safety, origin or freshness
- Substitution: replacing a food or ingredient with another substance that is similar but of inferior quality
- Document fraud: making, using or possessing false documents with the intent to sell or market a fraudulent or substandard food item
- Adulteration: including a foreign substance in a food product that is not on the product’s label to lower costs or fake a higher quality
Food fraud also matters because it raises questions about the UK’s post-Brexit trading arrangements. When the country was in the EU, the single market for goods meant anyone seeking to import food faced stringent rules about the quality of what they were bringing over the border (which is part of the reason why Northern Ireland trading arrangements have been so difficult to arrange since Brexit).
But with the UK now outside of the single market and having left the European Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed - a body where member states share intelligence about suspect food - we do not benefit from this strict import checks regime.
Indeed, the country still has not implemented a full system of post-Brexit import checks. At the same time, it is seeking to sign trade deals with countries all over the world - many of whom have lower animal welfare and food standards than the UK’s.
The issue of food fraud was raised by NFU President Minette Batters at the British farming group’s annual conference in February. After she warned that we “cannot afford to be complacent” about the issue, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary (Defra) Therese Coffey said the Government had worked hard to ensure biosecurity and that “we shouldn’t be putting ideas into people’s minds” in case consumers are scared off.
It comes as the Guardian has reported that a group of Tory MPs and peers are preparing to oppose post-Brexit trade deals with Canada and Mexico on welfare grounds.
What was the horsemeat scandal?
The last time a major food fraud scandal hit the UK was in 2013, when it was discovered horsemeat had been put in products labelled as beef.
It led to millions of food items being withdrawn from supermarkets across the UK and Europe, and proved hugely damaging to the food industry’s reputation. To restore faith in the food system, governments across the continent bolstered their food safety and food crime checks.
Here in the UK, it saw the government commission an inquiry led by food safety expert Professor Chris Elliott. His work led to the formation of the National Food Crime Unit. Supermarkets also improved DNA testing so that they could check whether a product was what it claimed to be. But Professor Elliott has now told Farmers Weekly he feels that some of the UK’s food safety and food crime systems have regressed.