A Farmers Weekly investigation in the UK is reporting what it describes as “an industrial-scale country-of-origin fraud in a scandal that has engulfed almost the entire food retail sector, as well as some major food service outlets”.

The investigation, which is primarily around the relabeling of imported pork as British, suggests that at least until the end of 2020, up to tens of thousands of tonnes per week were involved.

The article doesn’t name the processor involved and the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) has said it is carrying out a criminal investigation and is not naming the business so as not to prejudice any possible action by the courts.

Fake Rolex principle

Food labeling fraud works on the same principle as any other fraud that involves passing fake goods off as the original.

In the case of really expensive jewellery brands, the fake alternative may be of sufficient quality so as not to be noticed by the untrained eye and if successfully sold in significant numbers would generate considerable profit for the fraudster.

For a fraud to happen, for example relabeling Danish pork as British, the product would be of similar quality and appearance when traded in 20kg blocks in plain packaging.

It would be straightforward, though fraudulent, to repackage and relabel the Danish product as British, making it more valuable in the market place that is prepared to pay a premium for a British product.

If a cheaper Danish pork product could be laundered as British, then there is illegal money to be made, just as is the case where green (red in Northern Ireland) diesel has the dye removed and 'sold' as road diesel.

In fact, the relabeling food fraud is much more straightforward than tampering with a large volume of diesel.

Risk of getting caught

Historically, a relabeling fraud was probably classified as a relatively victimless crime, whereby enterprising individuals bypassed official controls and offered consumers what appeared relatively good 'value' in all sorts of consumer products.

Items with higher levels of taxation in one jurisdiction over another, such as cigarettes, alcohol and road fuel, were common categories for this activity.

However, the horsemeat scandal of a decade ago showed that beef could be substituted by horsemeat in manufacturing and several processors were complicit.

Even if this was unintentional, investigations showed that they were, at best, careless in sourcing.

The Farmers Weekly reporting shows that conducting a major labeling fraud requires the participation of a processor's staff.

The more people involved in a fraud, the greater the risk of it becoming exposed, as this reporting illustrates.

It would be a major surprise if a large processor would take a risk like this, as the potential reputational damage would outweigh any gain. However, it can never be assumed and this is where regulators have such an important role.

Historically, car drivers paid little heed to speed limits and drink driving was considered harmless.

Stricter rules, combined with police enforcement, have helped to greatly reduce speeding and drink driving, if not completely eliminating.

Food fraud, including mis-labeling, should be policed in the same way and just as fake consumer goods deny full value to whoever invested in building the original brand, when meat or dairy products are involved, it is farmers that are being defrauded.

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