The news a UK meat processor is being investigated for allegedly selling foreign pork it claimed was British and meat past its best may shock consumers but not industry insiders and sector analysts. The question is whether the allegations of fraud, if proven, represent a one-off case of criminality or are indicative of a wider malaise affecting the UK meat industry specifically and the food industry more generally?

And are such incidents more prevalent against the backdrop of an environment in which suppliers are seeing their margins squeezed by inflation in their supply chain while customers in a highly competitive market are paying low prices for their produce?

Reports over the last few days have said the government’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) is investigating claims of fraudulent mislabelling but also that the company involved sometimes supplied supermarkets with rotten meat.

Lurid details – based on testimony supplied by former employees – suggest the unnamed company had, until at least the end of 2020, been involved in “washing” rotten hams in salt water and mixing it with fresh produce in a move that may have seen the degraded meat ending up in ready meals, quiches and even sandwiches sold by the UK’s largest supermarket chains.

Grim stuff and, for those with long memories, it may bring to mind the scandal of 2013 when horsemeat was found to have entered the human food supply chain.

In the UK, a House of Commons select committee report on the matter – and a second enquiry conducted by Professor Chris Elliott, the director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast – concluded it was the result of fraud and other criminal activity across the European Union and made a range of suggestions for how this could be tackled.

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This resulted in a review of the UK food system and the formation of the FSA’s National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), which is the body investigating this latest case of alleged fraud in the UK meat sector.

When such issues occur, it is tempting to think that it is the tip of the iceberg but a senior figure in the meat industry told Just Food that, while he is not saying this week’s headline-making story is a one-off, he does not see it as widespread.

“It’s frustrating but clearly there is criminal activity in the industry,” he said. “But this is not what I see going on on a day-to-day basis. It is not an endemic problem within the industry.”

Dismissing the link between companies facing a tough economic backdrop and the temptation to cut corners when it comes to food safety or provenance accuracy, he said: “Margins are tight but it doesn’t mean companies are behaving like this.”

However, he did concede that regulatory checks need to be stepped up. “We probably need more digital record keeping. Paperwork is very vulnerable to corruption,” he said.

Not everyone, though, is as dismissive when it comes to the link between the economic backdrop and food fraud.

A veteran UK food industry analyst told this publication: “Food fraud is always evident but when you enter an environment with very material inflation and considerable margin pressure, the incentives for fraud just multiply.”

But he believes the low price UK supermarkets pay suppliers – which was also partially blamed for the recent shortage of salad vegetables on the grocery majors’ shelves – is another factor.

He added: “Procurers need to look at themselves in the mirror and make sure their demands don’t incentivise criminal behaviour.

“It [lower prices being paid to suppliers] may create big benefits for shoppers but it also incentivises fraudsters.

“Reputable food businesses doing everything by the book are constantly getting undermined by rogues. Are the major procurers in the UK – and I think the problem is much bigger in foodservice/hospitality than retail – paying enough attention to this?”

The FSA has warned that it is vital that everyone involved in the food system remains extra vigilant to ensure that food is safe and comes from where it says it does.

But the difficulty in achieving this was made clear recently when supermarket chain Booths – centred in north-west England – was revealed to have inadvertently sold deli meat labelled as British when it was from further afield.

The supplier of that meat, Loscoe Chilled Foods, is currently the subject of an investigation by the NFCU and the police.

Booths has said it was made aware of the potential issues in 2021 and that all relevant products were removed from sale and it ceased trading with the supplier as soon as it was made aware of the potential issues. It has said it is not under investigation.

As far as the investigation highlighted this week is concerned, pretending meat is from one place when it is actually from another is bad enough but allowing rotten meat to enter the supply chain is a whole new level of risk – one that threatens consumers’ health.

Agencies such as the FSA and its NFCU arm will need to redouble their efforts to clamp down on the perpetrators of such crimes before the unthinkable happens and someone becomes seriously ill or even dies as a result of such criminal behaviour.

And if the problem becomes widespread, they need to raise the alarm if they lack the resources to tackle it. The risk factor is too great not to do so.

Audits and inspections of food processors need to be maintained and even increased if necessary and the suggestion that paperwork is not the best way to keep records these days is a sensible one. Electronic record-keeping makes it harder for fraudsters to cover their tracks, experts argue.

But ultimately people will try to cheat the system and the protections against that in an area as important as the food supply must be robust.

Fears have been expressed that post-Brexit trade deals could see cheaper food linked to lower welfare standards imported into the UK.

The government denies this will be the case and the proof is in the pudding but the issue of what we as consumers are willing to pay for food and, linked to this, what the major supermarkets and foodservice operators are willing to pay suppliers for it is at the heart of concerns around food fraud.

No one is suggesting that the food industry is going to turn to criminality wholesale because of rising inflation in the supply chain and squeezed margins.

But there will be a temptation amongst a few to cut corners and they have to be stopped.

When it comes to rotting meat, we all need to kick up a stink.