Elliott’s comments came during his City Food Lecture this week, in which he also questioned the UK Government’s failure to recognise that the country’s £20bn (€23.6bn) agri-food deficit leaves it exposed to climate change and food fraud. “While a number in government will state proudly that our exports are increasing year on year, few if any, mention the massive increase in what we purchase from outside the UK,” he said.
The mayhem caused by vegetable crop failures across the EU this year is a timely reminder of the UK’s vulnerability to food shortages, Elliott said. “We are importing large amounts of food ingredients and commodities into the UK. These are often from complex supply chains. This leaves us highly vulnerable to the growing menace of food fraud,” he explained.
Tread carefully on trade
Elliott’s lecture – delivered by Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association – follows new figures released this week showing
“record exports” for UK food and drink. Global sales passed the £20bn (€23.6bn) for the first time, with sales to the US up 12%. China is also fast becoming one of the UK’s most important customers (sales up 49%), whilst in Europe, Poland (up 30%) and Spain (up 17%) are becoming key markets.
“As we prepare to leave the EU, there has never been a better time to become more outward looking – developing new trading relationships and establishing our place as a truly Global Britain,” said environment secretary Andrea Leadsom.
Speaking at the National Farmers union conference this week, Leadsom said she wanted to encourage even more exports.
But Elliott warned the environment secretary and her colleagues in Whitehall to tread very carefully as the UK – in prime minister Theresa May’s words – set about getting “out into the wider world, to trade and do business around the globe”.
Bleached chicken, hormone treated beef, GM fruit
“Bleached chicken, hormone treated beef, genetically modified fruit and vegetables and milk products derived from bovine somatotropin treated cows [are all currently banned from the EU due to safety issues],” Elliott said. “Many commentators would say these products are all as safe as those produced and sold in Europe. However, what is very clear is that in all surveys undertaken over recent years the UK public does not want any of them.”
As such, the UK government is “currently seeking to sign a trade deal with the US which might mean the majority of the UK public get food they don’t want”, he added. This is unlikely to help increase levels of trust in industry and government in terms of food, which is currently at an all-time low, he suggested.
Labelling is unlikely to provide the solution, either, given the complexity of ingredients lists and subsequent lack of country of origin information on products. Elliott isn’t the first to warn that a UK deal with the US could trigger a race to the bottom on food safety and quality. Similar concerns were raised during discussions over the controversial EU-US deal.
Brexit crime bonanza?
But there’s another concern Elliott has: “I think a very new can of worms in terms of food fraud will be upon us if – as I suspect – there will be a compromise around US getting access to the UK market for some of these food commodities.”
Elliott headed up the UK’s 2014 investigation into the integrity and assurance of food supply networks. And whilst he doesn’t believe there is evidence of large-scale organised crime activity in the UK food system the “real threats” come from elsewhere: “The likelihood we are consuming food that has involved modern day slavery in its production is in my opinion, high.”
Brexit will also create new opportunities for crime, he warned, as well as new patterns of trading and new opportunities for the food industry. “We [therefore] have extremely sound reasons relating to food security, food safety and ethics to know where our food comes from, and to have a knowledge of how it is produced. We need to know where it originated from now, and as the global macro-economics and climate change, where it will come from in the future.”