/ Food & Drink

What’s really in your lamb takeaway?

Food fraud

Our most recent investigation found 40% of lamb takeaways had been contaminated with other meats, with some containing no lamb at all. Shouldn’t we be able to trust the food we buy is what it says it is?

Today we launch our Stop Food Fraud campaign, prompted by our investigation into adulteration of lamb takeaways.

We want the Government, local authorities and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to take action so that we can trust the food we buy.

Our lamb takeaway tests

We bought 60 lamb takeaways in Birmingham and London (15 curries and 15 minced lamb kebabs in each location) and sent them to a lab to be analysed. We tested for the presence of lamb, chicken, beef, pork, turkey, goat and horse DNA.

Out of 60 samples, 24 were adulterated: 17 contained lamb with beef and/or chicken, and seven contained no lamb at all.

A few local authorities have carried out the same testing and found similar results. The reason for the adulteration is that both beef and chicken are cheaper than lamb. Therefore, by substituting them in place of lamb the restaurant can offer the product at a lower price or make significant savings.

I don’t eat lamb or beef but if I ordered a lamb takeaway and was instead given beef I’d be annoyed. As would many of my family who are Hindu so don’t eat beef for religious reasons.

Other commonly faked foods

We know that food fraud is not limited to lamb – last year horsemeat was found in our foods and experts say that most food is susceptible to fraud.

The biggest food fraud problem in the UK, and most likely worldwide, is counterfeit alcohol – including wine, vodka and Scotch whisky. Whereas substituting lamb for chicken might not be harmful to your physical health, counterfeit alcohol can be. Fake vodka has been found to contain a chemical found in antifreeze and methanol which can be fatal.

Other commonly adulterated foods include olive oil, fish, Basmati rice, honey, cheese and organic food.

The Government, local authorities and the FSA need to make tackling food fraud a priority and take tougher action to crack down on the offenders. This is vital to restoring trust in the industry.

You can help by signing our Stop Food Fraud petition – your signature will help push food fraud up the agenda and ensure action is taken.


I’m a sceptic when it comes to take-aways – full of mistrust. When I see 300 dishes on our local Chinese menu I have to wonder at the way they are supplied and produced. We generally buy food from places we can trust; our take-aways are generally meals from M&S or Waitrose or fish and chips. I’m sure we miss out on some of life’s great experiences.
As far as enforcement is concerned, we seem very lenient with standards of hygiene in restaurants and take-aways – warnings when standards may be abysmal from the spate of TV documentaries, if they are representative. I would close a premises until proper hygiene could be reliably established, and do the same if they served food not of the appropriate quality. That might be an incentive to trade properly. But I doubt if there are anything like the resources available to test the authenticity of food on the scale required.

Food substitution must be treated as fraud and the offenders punished. The only complication is that affected ingredients could have been purchased in good faith. If the Which? investigation is representative, this indicates that the problem is out of control and effective action is urgently needed.

I am far more concerned about food hygiene. Food poisoning is usually just unpleasant but can be much more serious. Premises should be subject to annual inspections and required to display their food hygiene rating, as is compulsory in Wales.

I feel sorry for the owners and staff of takeaways where customers are treated honestly and food is handled safely.

All this does is re-enforce my believe that I can’t trust takeaways and therefore I don’t use them.

I’d certainly be interested to see the receipts for the raw ingredients to see whether this is deliberate on the part of the takeaway, or the supplier(s).

And like wavechange says, its should be law to display your food rating in the whole of the UK. I can’t see a good reason for why it isn’t already, And maybe the rating should include an element of the correct ingredients being used. Maybe by adjusting the rating by the %age of questionable ingredients used. So if 50% of products bought don’t have the correct ingredients then the rating is reduced by 50%.

I’ve heard that imported ground almond can be adulterated with ground peanut (because it’s cheaper) – not good for people with peanut allergies.

Environmental health officers undertake the food safety inspections and do not concern themselves with the contents of the menu so long as they are stored and prepared hygienically. Trading standards officers enforce the selling of goods and the prevention of fraud through misdescription; they probably do not inspect restaurants and takeaways routinely and only visit if a complaint is raised. I suspect the police have an anti-fraud role too if they choose to exercise it but they probably prefer to leave it to TSO’s. Both local authority inspection regimes have a track record of acting like lambs and need to beef up their roles in protecting the public. Like Wavechange, I think the hygiene issue is the higher priority but a few prosecutions for mis-labelling wouldn’t go amiss. The temptation to sell the wong meat in disguise by being covered in curry sauce or mashed-up in a kebab is obviously quite powerful in today’s competitive market, especially when the patrons of such outlets are generally disinclined to complain or are incapable of noticing if something is wrong.

Trading Standards do still do routine inspections but it varies in each department (some do none). Inspections are not mandatory and expensive. Also an inspection is not the same as a sample/test which is even more expensive. An inspection generally won’t show you what is actually served (in certain type of outlets).

Police can try and tackle outright fraud under the Fraud Act but most of this type of stuff would be very difficult to prove as fraud – it would be covered by the Food Safety Act which is strict liability and you don’t need to prove intent.


From the frequency of contamination or even total replacement of meats reported by Which? and others it appears that people are gambling on not being found out. I would like to see Trading Standards funded from fines, which could provide more than adequate funding to run an effective service and hence to deter crime and irresponsibility.

I note what our Trading Standards informant tells us about routine inspections being carried out but I tend to believe that the “some do none” comment is the prevailing standard and not the exception. With all the other serious consumer protection issues to deal with, like weights & measures, counterfeit goods, dodgy traders, rogue builders, unsafe appliances, illegal fireworks, defective Christmas lights, and so on, the chances that TSO’s will hang about in the back streets till the take-aways open looking for beef dressed up as lamb are fairly small in my opinion. I have never read any reports of enforcement action – let alone prosecutions – for that sort of offence and I do tend to keep my eye on these things. I agree with Wavechange above. It is disappointing that the local authorities responsible for consumer protection have reduced the resources required for the work, which has been absolutely the worst thing to do during a recession. I can understand why, and accept that they probably had little alternative, but it means we need to bring new resources to bear on the problem so I think a penalty-based regime is the only way forward now. I believe that if a case is ever taken to the Magistrates Court, the penalties are derisory and the award of costs to the local authority goes nowhere in compensating them for the time and expense required to bring the case to court.

I very much agree, John. Many of the problems we discuss on Which? Conversation could be addressed by proper consumer protection and appropriate penalties for those who exploit consumers.

The problem here is one of funding the inspection authorities – both to monitor hygiene and to test, it appears now, for fake food. These are two separate issues, the first assuredly being dangerous to health, the second maybe not, but defrauding you. Whilst I agree with the idea of substantial penalties being imposed and used to fund inspection, there is always the danger that courts may not impose adequate penalties. So an alternative is a mandatory local authority penalty for infringement – but it is subject to the same problems as parking wardens – it may be misused to raise revenue.
For hygiene TSOs need assured income if they are to have the resources to do their job, so one way would be to license takeaways (and restaurants) with a significant annual charge. This would cover routine inspections. Then penalties for infringement and closure in appropriate cases until remedies are in place. The prospect of closure may deter owners from trying to get away with poor standards of hygiene.
Fraudulent food is a much more difficult problem – you cannot possibly monitor all outlets for all foods. It will depend upon intelligence. Only spot-checks and then following through to suppliers and associated outlets might be practical. A job for FSA and police? Could a license fee be enough to fund this as well?

There is a very laudable Which? petition about food fraud.
“1. We want you to feel confident the food you buy is what it says it is
2. We’re calling on the Government, Food Standards Agency and local authorities to stop food fraud
3. You can help make this happen – please sign our petition today”
Of course I want to stop this (among many other misdemeanours that conversations discuss!). But consider all the places food fraud can occur – not just takeaways but all restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, corner shops, butchers, fish and chippies, market stalls, wholesalers, etc.etc. – where on earth do you start and, more important, where do you find the resource to support such a huge and regular undertaking. It is all very well to say “something must be done” but we also need to propose practical ways of doing it. I think a bit more work needs to be done to give this petition a practical future. For example, do we have enough information to focus effort on particular types of outlet where fraud is more likely. If so, start there, make an example of them to show fraud is not worth it, and maybe other real and potential offenders might think again? Closure and custodial sentences for clearcut offences might be effective; fines tend to be seen as a commercial expense rather than a deterrent..

“fines tend to be seen as a commercial expense rather than a deterrent..” And isn’t that a very sad truth. Surely there’s a strong case by now that the punishment for commercial misbehaviour needs to be ramped up significantly.

We’ve all seen the type of fines that for some reason the ICO seems pleased with itself over that really just don’t go anywhere near the level they should be. Maybe Trading Standards should put pressure on government to let them set and keep the bulk of the fines they issue. If the government is satisfied with the current level of fines, than fine they can still get that amount but Trading Standards etc should keep the rest. A simple little formula of say 50% of annual turnover and 100% of directors “dividends”, would surely focus the minds of those that either by design or their own negligence have “conned” the public.

There is no link between a fine a business gets and the cost to the taxpayer to bring the case- infact there is no link between the ‘costs’ we are sometimes awarded and what the business pays.

To give you an example we once did an investigation – it involved 80 DAYS of TSO time. Lets say you work 7.5 hours and the overall cost to the taxpayer is conservativley £50 (inc wages/office costs/pension/travel etc).

Thats 600 hours x 50 = £30,000

That is investigation time – it does not include legal processing – which is done by someone on much higher pay. It also did not include assistance from the Police when someone was arrested and involved 2 officers for about a day.

It did not include our barrister costs – who probably earns 1000 a day and came to court at least 4 days.

So when is all said and done the real cost to the taxpayer was prob north of 50,000 for a fraud that was for roughly 40,000

The person pleased guilty after much delay and got a community order and no costs because he pleaded poverty.

A straightforward food case would still cost a fair few thousand and the type of fine -a couple of thousand would never cover it.

There is an argument that TS are there to do a job so to some extent they should absorb much of the cost but as I say – prosecution almost always cost way way more than the financial benefit back

Also note that TS do not get any money from the fine – it goes elsewhere.

Well I’m not surprised by that, but why does it have to stay like that ? With government cuts affecting almost every corner of government apart from MPs expenses, if they can claim for trivial things like mars bars, outfits like TS, the police etc should be able to get all their costs covered.

Who sets the level of the fines? They certainly need replacing.

I meant to say there is no link between the ‘costs’ we are awarded and what is actually costs.

Each law sets its own penalties.

In the Food Safety Act the penalties vary depending on whether it goes to Magistrates or Crown Court (summar/indictment). The max penalties are 20k and 5k depending on the specific offence.

Those are max penalties of course and I’ve never heard of anyone getting a max penalty.

Thanks for the all infoby the way.

Ian says:
20 April 2014

I have had concerns about fish and chip shops for some time now. in my area it seems that if you ask for cod or plaice they tend to look and taste identical and the look and texture vary from shop to shop. last summer we went on holiday for a month and fish there looked and tasted different. maybe which could do a survey at sometime.

Good point, Ian. I have sometimes wondered about that. Cod and plaice are quite distinctive from each other so they should not look alike and there is quite a taste difference too. Sometimes the kind of batter used and the oil or fat in which the fish is fried can make a significant taste difference for the same type of fish but it should still be possible to tell cod and plaice apart. Fish-&-chips has become quite expensive these days and it would not surprise me if some shops were cutting corners on the quality and kind of fish used, especially for take-away sales.

Hi Ian, Trading Standards has found cases of fish being substituted for cheaper varieties (pangasius (or catfish) instead of cod for example). It’s not clear how widespread this is – although there’s the potential for fraud where foods can easily be substituted without consumers necessarily realising, as we found with our takeaway testing. We will take this into account when looking at where we should focus any further food testing.

I have been following the story of Quorn since before it was launched. It is a filamentous fungus (mould). Perfectly harmless but not particularly appealing to list on the ingredients list. The first product containing Quorn mycoprotein was a savoury pie sold by Sainsburys. The description of Quorn was that it was a tiny plant distantly related to the mushroom. That’s honesty in advertising for you.

The description has changed several times since the launch of Quorn in 1985. I have just noticed that a current product containing Quorn explains that Quorn mycoprotein is a member of the fungi/mould family. Truth at last.

Unfortunately the product is NEW Quorn Pork Pies. In fairness, the packet is clearly marked as meat free, but why even think of marketing anything devoid of meat as Pork Pies.

I assume that the makers of Quorn were persecuted until they admitted that it is largely mould but let round two of the persecution start.