Food crime is serious crime

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Food safety not only threatens business, but the health of our children and families. FEHD is not enough – dedicated food crime units are needed to protect our food supply.

The food scandals that have recently rocked Hong Kong not only threatened public health but consumer confidence as well as Hong Kong’s reputation as a bastion of quality and integrity. Being reliant almost entirely on food imports, Hong Kong is extremely vulnerable to future food scandals especially if necessary steps are not taken by government and business to protect the city’s food supply chain.

Two Problems
To better understand the crisis, food security issues need to be broken down into two categories: fraudulent food and counterfeit food.
The current scandals have dealt with fraudulent food – the intentional substitution of cheaper ingredients. This is a growing issue for every company that accesses food from complex food supply chains. Thinking that the problem is isolated only to Taiwan and mainland China is a mistake; several high profile fraudulent food scandals have also rocked Europe – the most famous being the 2013 ‘horse meat scandal’.

many criminals are turning to importing and selling counterfeit food as relatively ‘safe’ alternative.

Counterfeit food, on the other hand, is the intentional smuggling and selling of ‘fake’ food by criminal elements within or across a country’s border. Europe, in particular, has seen a significant spike in criminal gangs smuggling and selling counterfeit food. High-fructose corn syrup pretending to be honey, dyed onion pretending to be saffron, and melamine as milk are all repeat offenders.

Supply Chain Concerns
The Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department and the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department are both capable and professional. However relying on these departments is not an alternative to appropriate due diligence.

More than ever, there is a need to encourage a culture within the food industry that questions the source of its supply chain. Businesses must not only rely on government to ensure that the food supply chain is safe and secure. Businesses themselves need to properly vet their suppliers and food sources. It is almost incomprehensible how large fast food restaurants still allow potentially fatal ingredients into their supply chain. Regular investigations and due diligence are two easy ways for businesses to ensure their suppliers are in compliance with food safety standards.

Going global
The two most recent food safety scandals in Hong Kong have centred on the use of rotten meat in the fast food supply chain and the use of “gutter oil.” But the threat does not end there for Hong Kong and its citizens.

Due to lighter sentencing (compared to drug smuggling), many criminals are turning to importing and selling counterfeit food as relatively ‘safe’ alternative. To date, gangs have been active in the trade of counterfeit food products throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Counterfeit food… smuggling and selling of ‘fake’ food by criminal elements within or across a country’s border.

In response, Interpol and the created Operation Opson, an international project, that regularly seizes hundreds of tonnes of fake and substandard food. This past January, Operation Opson III, jointly run by Interpol and Europol, seized approximately 131,000 litres of fake oil and vinegar, 20 tonnes of dodgy spices and condiments, 430,000 litres of counterfeit bottled drinks, and 45 tonnes of questionable dairy products.

Huw Watkins, head of the intelligence hub at the UK’s Government’s Intellectual Property Office noted: “ “Food fraud — in a similar way to tackling human trafficking — requires us to collaborate across borders, so we are working with the Food Standards Agency (FSA), Interpol and Europol.”

Forget FBI – It’s the FCU
In response to the dramatic rise in counterfeit and fraudulent food cases, the United Kingdom and mainland China have recently set up Food Crime Units (FCU) in order to better focus their efforts on this new security threat. The Hong Kong government should look to the UK and the mainland and consider establishing a similar unit focusing entirely on fraudulent and counterfeit food cases.

By establishing a specialised unit the government will be able to better focus its efforts on: intelligence gathering, sharing of information with international partners, organising unannounced audit checks of the food industry to protect businesses and their customers, and the development of a whistleblowing system that would better facilitate the reporting of food crime.

In cases of fraudulent and counterfeit food crossing international borders, there is an urgent need for relevant governmental departments to share all relevant intelligence with their international partners in order to effectively fight this growing threat.

additional scandals emanating from mainland China will almost surely feed additional fuel to dissatisfaction with the mainland and our local government.

Food jail
Penalties for smuggling and selling illegal food in Hong Kong are comparatively lighter than drug crimes. In order to provide a more meaningful deterrent, the Hong Kong government should consider stronger sentencing guidelines for anyone who is willingly importing, smuggling, or selling fraudulent or counterfeit food. In contrast to illegal drugs, counterfeit food can easily end up at the dinner table in front of children who then unknowingly consume the potentially harmful food, making this threat far greater than what we have seen before.

Occupy Dinner Table
In addition to the threat to public health, any additional scandals emanating from mainland China will almost surely feed additional fuel to dissatisfaction with the mainland and our local government, giving credence to claims that the current constitutional arrangements in Hong Kong are unsatisfactory. Hong Kong is in no position to take a wait and see approach. With another food scandal almost certain to hit the city, it is in the interests of both sides to take steps to ensure public safety and to ease concerns that food imports may be harmful.

For the government, this means stricter penalties and sentencing for anyone caught selling or importing fraudulent or counterfeit food. For businesses, in order to avoid future reputational damage and lawsuits, organising regular due diligence on suppliers must become part of their regular business operations.

Evan Wilcox is a graduate of Brock University and The Royal Military College of Canada with a masters in Security and Defence Management and Policy. He currently works for a Hong Kong-based company specialising in corporate risk mitigation, investigations and IT security.