A meat supplier claimed beef from South America and Europe was in fact British © Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images
A meat supplier claimed beef from South America and Europe was in fact British © Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

Did 'temptation to cut cost corner' lead to food fraud debacle?

10 March 2023

The food fraud debacle that has struck retailer Booths could have been prompted by a “temptation to cut a cost corner”, according to an expert.

Darren Smith, former category manager and CEO of training provider Making Business Better, told Supply Management supermarkets and suppliers were under “serious pressure” amid spiralling costs.

The National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), part of the Food Standards Agency, is investigating a meat supplier who had claimed beef from South America and Europe was in fact British.

The NFCU did not name the supermarket involved but it has since emerged that it is Booths, a high-end retailer operating in the north of England.

A trade body warned the fraud “will not have been limited to a single supermarket”.

“This is an investigation into the directors of a company responsible for selling large volumes of pre-packed meat products to a UK supermarket retailer, who pride themselves on only selling British products,” said the NFCU. 

“Our investigation has revealed that the offending company have been selling large volumes of meat products sourced from South America and Europe.”

The investigation will invoke memories of the 2013 meat fraud scandal, in which supermarkets were found to be selling products made with horse meat.

Booths said it was cooperating with the inquiry but stressed it was not under investigation.

The company said once it was made aware of labelling issues it removed relevant products from shelves and stopped buying from the supplier immediately.

“With the exception of the limited selection of cooked meat products impacted in 2021 Booths is absolutely confident in its British-only meat commitment,” the company said.

“It is also important to note whilst the NFCU investigation relates to a potential serious food fraud incident, this is not a food safety issue.

“Issues of provenance, traceability, honesty and authenticity are of the highest importance to Booths and the business has been fully cooperating with and supporting the work of the NFCU for the past 18 months.”

The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers said: “Given the popularity of sliced cooked beef across all trade channels, its sale by food fraudsters will not have been limited to a single supermarket.”

The NFCU said the investigation – known as Operation Hawk – has been ongoing since 2021 and included reviewing around 1.3m documents.

Smith said: “I suspect that with the serious pressure that both supermarkets and suppliers are under, the need to cut corners is more tempting than ever before. It may have been a genuine mistake – I hope so. The challenge we have in the UK grocery industry is that just when we thought it couldn’t get tougher, it has. There will be a blurring of the lines in supply chains as cost pressures continue to rise. 

“This is a real concern for our industry and with no end in sight. The bigger concern is trust with the shopper. Horsegate tested that trust, and we are doing it again. Testing the trust of the people that spend their hard earned cash with us. Those that despite their own cost pressures want to buy British and will now question why they are. I don’t believe this will be the last supermarket/supplier caught out because they were tempted to cut a cost corner.”

Neil Shand, CEO of National Beef Association, told SM the perpetrator was misleading both industry and consumer, and warned the weakening of borders post-Brexit had hit the food industry.

Tim Farron, environment spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, told the Daily Mail: “British farmers need the backing of supermarkets to get through these difficulty times. Farmers aren't getting the help they need from government and already face powerful supermarkets who constantly make unreasonable demands.”

Jim McMahon, environment spokesman for Labour, said: “We were told the lessons of the horse meat scandal had been learnt, but unfortunately this investigation could cast that into doubt.

“There are clearly very serious questions to answer and it's right that an urgent investigation is currently underway. The next Labour government will support British farmers and food production by ensuring that we buy, make and sell more great British food.”

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