For Alex Yates, Senior Officer in the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) Prevention Team at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), his first eighteen months has been enlightening. “Other than being an avid eater, I knew very little about the ins and outs of the industry before I joined,” he admits.
“Many people misunderstand what food crime is,” says Alex. “There’s a myth that food crime is people stealing food, as a final product, whereas our focus is much further up the supply chain. Our mission is to ensure food is safe, what it claims to be, and that no-one is acting fraudulently.”
The NFCU works to protect food businesses and the consumer from criminal attempts to exploit and profiteer from the food sector. Such criminal behaviour takes many forms, from the use of stolen food in the supply chain, to unlawful slaughter or misrepresentation – for example, selling fish as salmon when it isn’t. Consumers might also spot warning signs, such as products being sold at a much lower price than expected.
To tackle this, the NFCU reaches out to industry for intelligence, and to key partners – such as Nominet – to take action to disrupt illegal activity. That said, the team’s activity is not, Alex stresses, “about pointing the finger but about bringing everyone together to improve the integrity of the industry and ensure no-one becomes a victim of food crime. We don’t want honest businesses to suffer the consequences of being caught up in a food crime incident.”
The bulk of Alex’s working week is spent trying to identify the gaps that criminals may be able to exploit and advise businesses on how to close them. This is done by analysing an incident to see what learnings can be gleaned to prevent a repeat. “It can also cover an issue we may see coming in the future due to political, climatic or market changes, or something we see as a weak point from looking at it from the outside,” he explains.
Increasingly, much of the team’s focus is on digital channels. “When you remove the tangible elements of buying a product, criminals can advertise a product to be of better quality than it actually is, as all a consumer has to reference are pictures and a description. It makes exploitation much easier.”
Nominet, as the national registry, can respond to reports of criminality from the NFCU, identifying who owns a suspicious domain name and, if required, suspend it for illegal activity. “Nominet helps us to stop the selling and advertising of illegal food and allows us to take swift and decisive action that protects the public,” explains Alex. “Digital platforms have really come to the fore and are a key area of interest for us; it’s vital that we work to protect the e-commerce sector and consumers shopping online.”
As mentioned above, the NFCU recognises the need for clear communication to drive greater awareness of what they do and to make sure food businesses see the FSA as a source of support. “We are committed to making sure food businesses we approach don’t feel like they’re under suspicion, but realise we are there to help them,” says Alex.
Alongside the crucial role communication plays in crime prevention and law enforcement, Alex’s experience as a police officer also served to underscore the tenacity and audacity of criminals; “after a while not much can surprise you, and you see first-hand how criminals will try all and every means possible. They will take any opportunity they can, when and where it presents.”
His career in law enforcement and crime prevention is undoubtedly demanding, but it fulfils a personal determination to help “the honest majority who work incredibly hard. I can’t stand injustice, in any capacity – it’s not right, or fair, that a dishonest minority exploit that illegally for their own personal gain.”
He actively encourages “all and any information from food businesses – we need their help.” Concerns or requests for advice can be directed to [email protected] .