Food Standards Scotland

Tackling Scotland's complex food crime problem

Ron McNaughton ,
21 Jan 2020

Ron McNaughton is Head of the Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit (SFCIU) for Food Standards Scotland (FSS).  Here he discusses the crucial role everyone working within Scotland’s food and drink industry must play in reporting food crime.

Scotland’s rich and diverse food and drink is the envy of the world, playing an integral part not only to our economy, but to our very culture and identity. With the sector adding £3.8 billion gross value to the Scottish economy every year, there is a good reason that the ‘Made in Scotland’ stamp has become synonymous with taste and quality.

Yet every day this global reputation for excellence is in jeopardy, with certain individuals and organisations making bad decisions and undertaking fraudulent activity that can significantly impact the safety and authenticity of our world-class food and drink.

Food crime is complex, generally unseen and often unreported. But it has far reaching repercussions that seriously impact on farmers, responsible business owners and consumers. And it is expensive. FSS estimate that food crime costs the UK economy £1.17 billion every year.  From livestock offences and tampering with the food chain’s integrity, the cost of food crime can be exponentially higher to our rural communities, in particular undermining the reputation for high quality traceable produce which Scotland is rightly famed for. 

Poaching, for example, is an increasing problem with damaging consequences not only for landowners, but biodiversity, food safety and links to organised crime. With the high demand and prices for the likes of wild salmon and venison, organised gangs are driving poaching to an appallingly industrial scale.

However, food crime should not simply be viewed as a pursuit by outright criminals. Since our inception in 2015 in the wake of the horsemeat scandal, SFCIU’s investigations have also focused on legitimate people who have moved into criminal activity for economic gain.

A recent case found that over 80% of salt found in Hebridean Sea Salt did not originate in the Hebrides, and was in fact imported table salt. This of course then also brought wider implications in the supply chain for other producers that had used the ingredient in good faith. Reputations take years to build and can be lost overnight.

Tackling food crime is in the interest of every legitimate business and organisation operating within our industry. At SFCIU we’re utilising increasingly advanced technology, allowing us to capture the molecular fingerprint of produce and identify exactly where stock and ingredients come from. It is a strong deterrent, but most of all we need to create a culture where food crime is simply not tolerated or ignored. This will in turn ensure that consumers can have confidence in food labeling as a quality assurance that their purchase is produced and manufactured to the high standards they expect.

I am delighted that Scottish Land & Estates is joining FSS and our partners in taking a stance against food crime, and we welcome other businesses and organisations to get in touch and join the fight. It is a crime not always easy to identify and it is only by working together that we can raise awareness and create a better understanding as to what actually constitutes a food crime.

The best intelligence resides within the food industry itself. Giving people the confidence to make that call, knowing they have guaranteed anonymity to flag something that they feel in their gut ‘isn’t just quite right’, is essential.

This is not just about protecting your own business, you are protecting the whole reputation of Scotland’s food and drinks industry.

If you have any information or concerns about food crime, call the free and confidential Scottish Food Crime Hotline: 0800 028 7926 or complete the online form.