A national food crime prevention network which involves unannounced audits and a zero- tolerance approach will help protect consumers from any more incidents like the horse meat scandal, a government-commissioned report says.

Professor Chris Elliott is calling for a "robust, effective" Food Crime Unit to protect the industry and consumers from criminal activity and support better links with food crime agencies across the EU and beyond.

Loading article content

And he said consumers must be put first by ensuring that their needs in relation to food safety and food crime prevention are the "top priority".

Prof Elliott said the UK food industry was "very competitive and there is a constant drive to reduce costs and maximise profits", adding: "Consumers are reliant on the leadership, good intentions and good practices of those who supply food and regulate it. Consumers expect government and industry to provide a food system which is safe, resilient and free from criminal interference.

"Consumers must be able to trust that the food they consume is what it claims to be."

He said that while all consumers were at risk from food fraud, lower income groups spent a higher proportion of their income on food, particularly processed foods, which were more susceptible to fraud.

And he said: "Some consumers are at risk if they have to rely on others for food preparation, such as those in care homes, or hospitals.

"Recent surveys by local authorities such as Leicester City Council, West Yorkshire, North Yorkshire and West Sussex, and the consumer organisation Which? have shown that consumers using fast food outlets in inner city areas are often buying food which is not what it claims to be.

"In some cases the evidence suggests that problems arose because of unintentional labelling mistakes, but there is a concern that other fast food outlets may have been sourcing cheaper meat which increased the risk of food fraud. "

Professor Elliott said buying policies, particularly within some of the larger retailers, were "a matter of concern".

He said: "The review cautions against procurement of goods for less than the recognised reasonable price, based on market knowledge.

"This is neither good for the sustainability of UK farming nor the integrity of the food industry and ultimately impacts negatively on consumers."

And he issued a stern warning that it was the responsibility of retailers to provide evidence that they had checked the background of any products bought for well below the recognised market price.

He said: "In such a case it is for the retailer to be able to produce evidence that it checked that there were no grounds for suspicion of the product being counterfeit or adulterated, because in such a case the counterfeit or adulterated goods would amount to criminal property."

He said estimates of the extent of criminality and serious organised crime in food provision varied widely and the full extent of the problem in the UK was unknown.

But he concluded: "The UK has one of the safest food supply systems in the world, and all those involved should be commended for what has been achieved.

"I am pleased that the Government and the food industry have already taken some major steps forward in response to the interim report's recommendations aimed at restoring consumer confidence and protecting hard-working honest businesses from food crime.

"I believe the creation of the national food crime prevention framework will ensure measures are put in place to further help protect consumers from any food fraud incidents in the future."