/ Food & Drink, Health

Will a new hotline crack down on food fraud?

Junk food cartons with skull and crossbones, symbolising food fraud

Food Standards Scotland has teamed up with charity Crimestoppers to launch a food fraud hotline for Scotland. So can this hotline crack down on this crime?

The main types of food fraud are:

  • Food that is unfit or harmful (the kind that makes you unwell)
  • Food that is not authentic (mislabelled or missold), or
  • Food that is stolen and/or illegally slaughtered (like meat or wild game)

In 2014, as part of our Stop Food Fraud campaign, we bought 45 portions of fish labelled as haddock or cod from fish and chip shops in Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. We tested the fish DNA to find out what was really in it. We found two portions in Manchester that were being sold as cod were, in fact, haddock. In Glasgow, five sold as haddock were actually whiting. Whiting easily passes for cod or haddock and is a cheaper fish, often used in fish meal and pet food. But that doesn’t make it right.

Also in 2014, we undertook exclusive DNA testing on lamb takeaways. What we found shocked us. Of the 60 meals we tested, 24 had meat other than lamb in them, and seven had no lamb at all! Our results are not isolated cases. Trading Standards and Environmental Health Officers in Falkirk, Leicester, Warwickshire and West Yorkshire have found similar levels of fraud in lamb takeaways.

Will better reporting lead to safer food?

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) was set up in the aftermath of the horsemeat scandal (and our campaign about it) to ensure the food we eat is safe and authentic. That incident – and current worries about Campylobacter in chicken – have thrown a spotlight on food fraud. All the companies involved in getting food to our tables are vulnerable to this crime, so this news is welcome.

However, not all companies supplying food to Scotland are based in Scotland. So it is crucial that Scottish agencies (such as FSS and Police Scotland) work with other similar UK and EU agencies to make the most of the intelligence they get in Scotland. Only then will we be able to tackle food crime no matter where the food has come from or where it is sold.

What will the new hotline do?

In September 2015, a new Scottish Food Crime Incident Unit was created to tackle food fraud. To do this it will keep a look out for dishonest food suppliers. The new hotline will be the first port of call for people who have tip-offs, so that the Unit can tackle any crimes head-on.

The hotline will be solely for people who want to raise the alarm anonymously to FSS. As well as being available to the public, this will be a much needed tool for whistleblowers working in the food and drink industry.

So if you happen to know about a food crime in Scotland, or you’ve seen something that looks dodgy, then the hotline number is: 0800 028 7926. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This isn’t the only way for people in Scotland to report food fraud, but it should be a much quicker and easier way to report it. Most importantly, it is totally confidential.

The National Food Crime Unit has also launched Food Crime Confidential, where people in the rest of the UK can report food crime over the phone (0207 276 8787) or by email (foodcrime@foodstandards.gsi.gov.uk).

Why is food law enforcement important?

We rely on good law enforcement when it comes to keeping our food safe – the consequences of dodgy or fake food can range from unpleasant to dangerous.

Our Scottish research from February 2015 found that people have high expectations of food policing. Of those surveyed, 99% said they thought it’s important that local councils enforce food safety rules and 95% in the case of food labelling rules.

We need to have enough controls in place to police food law. The FSS, local councils and others must take the lead in spotting risks and making sure that their checks are enough to keep food safe.

So what do you think about food fraud? Are you worried about the safety of your food? Do you think this hotline will help cut down on the amount of food fraud in Scotland?

Comments

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In answer to the central question, I doubt it. People who are poisoned by a restaurant usually make some comments to someone about the matter, but I’ve long wondered why there was a such a fuss about the horse meat saga. As far as I’m aware it does no one any harm and, in fact, it could be highly beneficial for us all to consume a much wider variety of meats, if we are meat eaters, of course.

But there are two strands to this: potentially unfit or harmful food and mislabelled food. On the former, good policing is an essential strategy in the food industry, but I can’t become too concerned about the latter. Were I a meat eater I would see no reason why Horse, Dog and Cat didn’t appear on our shelves and in restaurants. So why do I doubt the hotline efficacy? Simply because it provides a very quick and easy way for people to create problems for a restaurant or store they dislike. I’ve always mistrusted ‘confidential’ hotlines: they’re routinely abused by vindictive individuals in Social Services, for instance and I could imagine the trolls of this world turning in droves to a ‘phone number providing a ‘completely confidential’ reporting facility. But that may simply be me.

I think a lot of the fuss around the horse meat saga wasn’t that people were eating a different type of animal, but that as they weren’t meant for food they could have been given drugs that are harmful to humans when passed down the food chain.
In response to the main question, I’m not sure if anyone would report food poisoning, or if they would put it down to a bug.

Ian, Of course you are right about meat, or any product that is unfit for human consumption needing to be properly policed and there needs to be stronger laws to convict any culprits!

I think, however, that you are totally wrong about ‘mislabelled’ food, it is contrary to the Trades Description Act and is very much ILLEGAL!

I am a meat eater and I have travelled extensively to France, and other EU countries, where it is commonplace to eat horse meat, and, let me add, I have often eaten it and there is nothing wrong in that, so long as you know! However the main difference is that the French and other Europeans, do not falsely claim that is is any other kind of meat – they declare it up front and on their menu’s!

Many shops and restaurants declare their product to be ‘free range’ , ‘organic’, ‘genuine’, ‘Scottish’, ‘Scampi’
‘Loch Fyne’, ‘sea caught’ when it’s ‘farmed’, and the list goes on….. when it’s simply not! This is out and out fraud and in many cases costs much more than the product actually being provided!

You are also wrong about hotlines, whether they are confidential or not, they are not just used by trolls or trouble makers, they are usually used by people who need support, as is evidenced by the many hotlines available, like ‘Internet Fraud’, ‘Childline’, ‘TPS’, ‘ICO’ and many more!

It is also quite obvious that the collective does better than the single voice in many things, for example, in many of the campaigns and petitions raised by ‘Which?’ and the like!

People can, and often do complain in restaurants, usually about poor meals, rather than ‘fraudulent descriptions’, which is much more difficult to prove, and needs some form of officialdom to be involved! Also many people are too frightened to take on shops / restaurants on their own!

You, of course are perfectly entitled to your opinion, but as you chose to voice it on a public platform, I feel equally entitled to disagree and dispute your statement!

You may think that eating horse disguised as something else doesn’t hurt anyone but it has the potential to cause us great harm. Because the meat isn’t regulated the same as in the legitimate food industry then horses may be eaten within a few days of having been given powerful drugs which are potentially very dangerous to humans. We had a horse who was on steroids for a long period of time and we were warned that his body should never go into the food chain as it could be very dangerous.

You make your points passionately and effectively, but I wasn’t disparaging hotlines in general – merely those that allow anonymous tips. If you re-read what I said you will see I was quite precise in that.

I agree; and, again, I wasn’t for a minute suggesting that serving different food from what was being claimed was right. My point, really, was that we actually have what has become a very restricted diet. In the UK that’s largely limited to Cattle, Sheep, Pigs and intensively farmed poultry which, in some ways, can be worse for you than eating food outside of the norm. There is, in fact, growing evidence that our diets are too restricted to be healthy, now, and may actually be exacerbating our growing allergy issue.

But really that was all something of an aside in relation to my main point which was that I doubt the value of a confidential hotline .

If I buy bovine meat I don’t want horse meat regardless if it contains unknown drugs or not.

I think most people would report food poisoning i myself have had that twice in my life time
and believe me i was very ill both happened while eating out

Sheila Brown says:
2 September 2016

Quite some time ago my husband and I had food poisoning after eating hamburgers. The food shop’s answer to my complaint was to offer us another hamburger free!!!! We did not accept and warned all our friends not to eat there.

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Would report food poisoning , but this is for food labelling. How is the common man (or woman) to know if it is incorrectly labelled? Haddock vs whiting? Horsemeat vs beef etc.

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Spot checks by local authorities on food premises, shops and catering establishments is one of their remits to “keep us safe”. If they don’t have the money – staff – to do this properly, and don’t apply sanctions sensibly (closing down offending premises might send a message) then we will not get protection. By all means have a whistleblowers’ hotline to national food standards, but fund the local authorities properly to do their job.

Re the intro, I prefer haddock to cod from the chippy, partly for the flavour and it is usually cooked to order (England) rather than drying out in the hot cabinet. You might also be given it by mistake; one bit of battered fish from the display looks much like another so the Birmingham “crime” might be a genuine mistake. And campylobacter is not a food crime, it is a natural problem that does not yet have a solution.

The topic is, of course, serious. Substituting one food for another is cheating, but if the vendor is prepared to do that, what other corners will be cut – contaminated food, out of date for example. This can make you ill or kill you. I do not think the “authorities” take this seriously enough. Our local market has a fish stall (iced displays) with a lot left at the end of the day. How many times is this displayed again before it is sold? Meat pies out on display, maybe reappearing at market after market. Are they checked for contents? Who is going to “whistleblow”? Only routine spot checks can deal with this.

[Sorry Ian, your comment has been removed to align with Community Guidelines. Thanks, mods]

This comment was removed at the request of the user

[Sorry Ian, your comment has been removed to align with Community Guidelines. Thanks, mods]

I have always asked for my fish to be cooked in front of me its never been a problem where i live in Scotland

David Hughes says:
1 September 2016

Not knowingly been served with fraudulent food but sure I probably have however cannot trace any illness to a possible case. Anything that improves food safety and traceabillity is welcome

I agree. I once got food poisoning after eating a fish supper and remember thinking at the time that the fish seemed a bit dry. If I had had a way of reporting the shop in question perhaps the problem could have been identified, or at least the owner’s attention alerted to it.

Well done!!! We need this!!!! Although I don’t know how to tell the difference other than not liking the taste but that could be the sauce or how it’s cooked. I would definitely use this if I knew!!!!! Thanks.

Gordon Scott says:
1 September 2016

Having had food poison once nice the Ministry of food closed the cafe down in question two weeks later the owner opened up has a fish and chip shop ime glad Which are now doing something about these dodgy traders good news thank you .

M. Silverwood says:
1 September 2016

We need people to be better educated about food. Schools could help here. Home Economics classes. Earlier this week I bought a packet of beef koftas made in Germany. I suppose it was beef but when I fried them each produces a couple of tablespoons of fat which I poured away. The koftas themselves were full of tiny lumps of hard gristle. I would have welcomed a label that told me that it was X % fat and Y % gristle.

i am not sure if this would help as when i eat from carry out that we are eating food thats is right or not

All fair comments but any steps taken to ensure safety of the food we eat should be welcomed. However, I don’t know if I would use the hotline as I cook so I know what’s in my meals!

I do not think that this would help; as most if not all government agences do not help the consumer rather the opposite as they may some time fine establisments this is not a deterent.
I pesonally do not buy prepacked or ready meals; nor do I purchase takaway, as I would rather cook fresh ingrediants myself.

In essence…………………Unfortunately NOT

Why don’t the Food Standards Agency name and shame establishments that are wrongly selling food that is fake or dodgy. Then the public will be able to make up its own mind about purchasing from that establishment.
I do not think that this new “initiative” will help very much as it is dependant on the public having the knowledge about what they are eating.

Many people would just ignore the published facts as many ignore any advice given to them. Scam advice springs to mind

For me there are a number of issues here. Health obviously, and people should be able to have confidence that whatever food they buy, either from a restaurant or in a shop is fit for human consumption. Fraud is another matter, and whilst eating crocodile passed off as chicken (apparently its close) may not be harmful to the person eating it, it’s still fraud, and should be stamped out because invariably the person committing it is making greater profits than other legitimate businesses who play by the rules and therefore they are gaining unfair advantage (never mind the moral dimension associated with the fraud!) There’s another point which I have to say is more theoretical than fact, but its about whether people really care? Yes, if I eat cat thinking its something else I’d be livid (and I’m not a cat lover on any level) but if someone sold whiting pretending to be cod – I’m not so sure that too many people would care enough to do something about that.

I welcome this hotline as I work in the catering industry and know how important it is in terms of hygiene. I would never produce, serve food that does not meet the highest standards and always welcome visits from Environmental Health. I hate the thought of visiting an eaterie and being served food which is not as intimated on the Menu. I would report an issue on the hotline without question.

Peter Amsden says:
1 September 2016

I would most certainly use a food hot line. I have been suspicious at times, and would have welcomed a second opinion.

I think it is a very good idea provided it is used honestly and not vindictively. Customers should be able to expect the genuine article they have paid for and not a cheap alternative.

I think some are missing the point on horse meat. Why be outraged about eating horse when they would otherwise happily eat sheep, cow, pig, chicken, fish etc etc. I think it was the fact that they didnt know that what they were eating contained horse meat. The helpline? I wouldn’t use it and like others have said it would be abused by anyone who wanted to cause difficulty for businesses -especially racist abuse. Isn’t trading standards the body to go to with issues of products that are not what they say they are? I personally would contact environmental health if I was sold a food that wasn’t what it claimed to be. I have had experience of a well known high street sushi restaurant’s staff being unable to tell me what the meat like substance in my vegetarian dish was. Not one of them could tell me. It turns out after emailing the head office myself it was soya protein that was not listed as an ingredient, they have since changed their menus.

Great idea!

A very important safeguard for the consumer to have, and i would without hesitation use the hotline . It’s all about ” profit ” for the suppliers / retailers at the consumer’s expense and those falsifying ingredients should be prosecuted .