Shipments of horsemeat masquerading as beef have been seized across Europe as criminals take advantage of closed borders and industry shutdowns to peddle fake products, experts have warned.
The disruption caused by coronavirus has led to a spike in food and agricultural fraud and there are fears the closure of meat processing plants will see pork and other animal products sold on the black market, by-passing safety checks.
Two fraudulent horse meat shipments were seized in Denmark and the Netherlands, with at least one them intended for “unauthorised placing on the market,” according to the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) safety register, which recorded “horse meat from Germany, from horses dispatched from Denmark”.
There has also been a seizure by British customs of illegally imported smoked fish from Ghana.
The seizures have reinforced fears that criminal gangs have begun to target food supply chains disrupted by the pandemic.
One industry source said there was a “tsunami of goods” in the supply chain waiting to be offloaded following the closure of meat processing plants and transport links during lock downs, such as pork from eastern Europe and beef from Ireland.
There are fears that has led to some suppliers trying to offload products without asking too many questions.
Fraud specialist Eoghan Daly, director of forensic services at Crowe UK, told The Telegraph: “It's a fact that there will be fraud in the food chain because of the disruption caused by coronavirus. There are pressures in the supply chain, such as shortages of workers, that may lead to a degree of turning a blind eye. They may switch production to meet contracts to places or suppliers that don't meet certain requirements.
"Or they may start buying from a broker rather than directly from a supplier and if you buy food products from a broker it's very hard to ensure certain standards are met, whether those are safety standards or ethical standards.”
The seizures have raised the spectre of a repeat of the 2013 horsemeat scandal, when traces of it were found in food products being sold as beef across Britain and Europe.
The security of supply chains was tightened following the scandal, but experts warn gaps still exist, particularly across the processed food sector, where dozens of small firms and suppliers are involved in the supply chain.
Businesses have been urged to remain vigilant.
Louise Manning, professor of agri-food and supply chain security at the Royal Agricultural University, said: “There have been seizure of horse meat more recently as highlighted in the RASFF database, but we rely on everyone working in food supply chains to be aware of what could happen in terms of substitution of meat from a different animal, recognising when a one off deal is “too good to be true” and that goes for consumers too.”
Some industry figures predict that renewed questions over the origins of meat products will lead to growing numbers of consumers seeking plant-based alternatives.
Morten Toft Bech, founder of plant-based food maker Meatless Farm, in Leeds, said: “The Corona crisis has made people more aware of where their food comes from and so realise the benefits of plant-based foods. As a result, we have seen a massive increase in demand for our mincemeat, burger and sausage alternatives across the UK, US and Europe.”
Several meat processing plants have closed in recent weeks in France, Germany, Spain, Australia, the United States and Brazil, raising questions as to where the excess supply will end up.
More than 100 people tested positive coronavirus at a slaughterhouse in Cotes d'Armor, western France, on Wednesday, while in the US, Tyson Foods and JBS have shut plants handling 40% of the country’s pork, leaving more than a million pigs a week unable to be processed. Last week Bloomberg reported that more than 90,000 pigs had to be culled in Canada.
Liam Fassam, associate professor of supply chain management at the University of Northampton, told The Grocer magazine: “Where are those pigs going? They’ve got to go somewhere, and I guarantee you somebody, somewhere will be capitalising out of this. They’ll find a way to route that out of the country and it will come into the supply chain.”
There are also questions over the food safety and purity testing regime across Britain and the rest of Europe.
Many on-site inspections have been postponed and external laboratories that carry out food authenticity testing for supermarkets are reportedly working at reduced capacity due to social distancing measures and staff shortages.
Asda and Tesco were criticised recently for sourcing mincemeat from Polish suppliers, with the National Beef Association (NBA) warning that it was unclear whether “the source farms in Poland comply with the same rigorous conditions that British farms must adhere to”.
The UK’s Food Standards Agency said: “We recognise the potential increase in criminal opportunities arising from Covid-19 due to disruptions to food chains and associated changes to supply and demand, here and globally.
“We are working with local authorities and other law enforcement partners and industry to identify these opportunities being exploited by criminals, and take action to deal with them. We encourage people with relevant information to contact us to report it.”