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65% of UK consumers expressed concerns about imported food

Staff writer |
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has published the first assessment of food crime in the UK.

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Food and drink is a 200 billion pounds industry in the UK and like any major industry, it’s vulnerable to a wide range of criminal activity. Unlike many industries, the crimes are often undetected or unreported.

While data suggests that over half of the food consumed in the UK originates here, the UK food system has significant international links with the extent differing markedly between products.

The domestic supply of dairy and eggs, for example, accounts for 85% whilst 84% of meat and meat preparation is home produced.

Almost half of cereal and cereal preparations are produced here but only 22% of fruit and vegetables. Other EU Member States provided 28% of UK food in 2013, with five accounting for roughly a fifth of this.

The total value of food and drink exports from the UK was 18.8bn pounds in 2014.

Data suggest a greater level of consumer concern about the safety of food imported into the UK. 65% of consumers expressed concerns about imported food with 42% raising concerns about food produced in the UK.

Significantly, both levels of concern increased between 2012 and 2014. These data also suggest greater levels of consumer concern with regards to meat both imported and UK-produced than for fruit and vegetables. This may be partly attributable to the impact on consumer confidence of the horse meat incident of 2013.

The international scale and complexity of the UK food economy leaves it vulnerable to global climate events and compels us to understand their impact on supply chains and markets.

The current El Nino climate event is predicted to continue through the winter of 2015; scientists from the University of Reading observe that this has the potential to "disrupt global food markets".

Coffee plantations in Brazil are understood to be already on the brink of failure and reduced rainfall in Australia could affect bananas and sugarcane crops as well as cattle.

More precise data on affected harvests will serve as a valuable indicator of areas of increased food-related criminal risk in the year ahead where supply is impaired but demand remains unchanged.

Reporting by the Food and Agriculture Organisation in October 2015 suggested El Nino has led to price increases in sugar and vegetable oils, owing to anticipated weather events affecting crops in Brazil and Indonesia.

Throughout this report, a number of the identified areas of focus include international supply routes and commodity origins. These include honey for which the major suppliers outside the EU are China and New Zealand, whose Manuka product attracts particular attention.

The origin of olive oil imported into the UK is predominantly Spain and Italy; issues affecting harvests in just these two countries, therefore, may impact significantly both on the supply and pricing of olive oils in the UK, but also on the likely prevalence of fraud and adulteration of these products.

International trends within non-compliances can also be pertinent, for example countries such as Turkey or Egypt, whose produce generates a large number of safety alerts due to pesticide residues or similar issues.

These issues in themselves may not be food crime, but can pinpoint countries whose producers have stronger incentives to circumvent controls and continue to sell their product.

What is less clear is whether this lack of confidence is based on fears of criminal threats to food, or is a manifestation of more general concerns relating to food safety and authenticity.

The vast majority of food safety incidents that occur are assessed to be the result of error or recklessness rather than dishonesty.

Although there are no available estimates for the UK, a global loss rate for all type of fraud (of which food fraud is only one component) is estimated at 3.4%11 of expenditure.

Separately, in 2013 the National Fraud Authority estimated the loss to the UK economy from all types of fraud to be 52bn pounds (or 3% of GDP).

The size of the UK food, drink and catering sector is around 196bn pounds or 11% of the economy – so even a tiny percentage prevalence could amount to a substantial sum of money.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimates the share of global trade made up by counterfeiting and piracy stood at 2% in 2007, which if applied to the value of UK food and drink trade excluding catering suggests a potential scale of 1.17bn pounds.