Horse sold as beef led to Chris Elliott’s review into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks. His interim report was published on 12 December. The proposed ‘food crime unit’ gripped the media. It’s a good idea. But not as good as the idea for a ‘legally privileged information gathering facility’ run by industry, separate from government. Elliott could have called it a ‘clype unit’ if he’d used his Ulster Scots. A clype is a tell-tale. The facility would be a safe haven for industry to share suspicions, even gossip, while protecting commercial confidentiality.
Detecting food fraud is difficult. Law enforcers focus on food safety. But fraudsters don’t always endanger health. A deceitful swindle in Shetland is called a ‘swick’. Between 2002 and 2005, 17 skippers (most living on the island of Whalsay, said to have a bigger proportion of millionaires than Chelsea) landed illegal (over quota) mackerel and herring worth £47.5 million. They were in league with the processors who deceived the inspectors with falsified log books, rigged weighing scales and secret pipes which transported landings to uninspected parts of the premises, controlled by a lever in a peerie hut known as the ‘Wendy House’. The door was marked: ‘Keep Out. Electricity. Danger of Death.’ No amount of laboratory testing would have detected the scam. The mackerel were mackerel and the herring herring. It came to light because the fishermen were declaring much higher earnings to the Inland Revenue than the apparent value of their fish landings.
Cheap food has been the public expectation for years. But anyone who thinks that it always comes unswicked is a gype.