At its meeting on 6 April, the Food Standards Agency board agreed to set up the new body to consider further regulatory action to help tackle the trade, part of a increased attention toward the issue within the EU.
Such trade cuts into the sales of legitimate food producers by placing cheaper products on the market. Adulterated butter, buffalo meat declared as beef, tigernuts imported as flower bulbs are some of the products that have been stopped at the EU's borders. In the UK the FSA is currently investigating allegations of illegally imported meat from China through Euro Freeze, in Northern Ireland.
Illegally declared foods not only circumvent the EU's tariffs or trading restrictions but could also pose a health risk to consumers.
The new UK task force will be chaired by Philip Barlow, the former associate professor of food science and technology at the National University of Singapore.
The task force's remit will be to consider and report on all issues which are likely to significantly impact on food fraud, and in particular, to consider the current controls in place and their suitability to control and deter food fraud.
The task force will initially focus on the meat sector and lessons learnt will then be expanded more broadly, to the rest of the food industry, the FSA announced.
"Setting up this new task force signals the Agency's commitment and determination that everything that can be done to stamp out food fraud will be taken forward," the food regulator's director of enforcement, David Statham, stated in a press release: "Its ultimate aim is to improve consumer protection from fraud and unsafe practices. It is clear that some current processes could and should be tightened and this review has been instigated to deliver solutions."
Barlow noted that the findings and recommendations of the task force will provide increased consumer confidence in the food they consume.
The FSA said the recent investigation into the allegations surrounding Euro Freeze had sparked the current emphasis on increasing measures against fraudulent food trade.
Some of the issues were discussed by the FSA board at the meeting last week. The board recommended that the task force should investigate new measures relating to health markings, the identification of animal by-products, inspection and audit arrangements for food businesses, the effectiveness of the agency support mechanisms against fraud, the adequacy of the existing legal framework and penalties and arrangements for encouraging 'whistleblowing'.
The task force will first meet in May 2006. A final report is due to be submitted to the FSA board in October 2007.
A series of interim reports to the board and any necessary actions identified will be fast tracked prior to the final report, the FSA stated.
The Euro Freeze late last year sparked off a EU-wide food alert on mis-labelled meat products.
The FSA launched the hunt for beef, poultry and pork on suspicions of illegal health labeling after closing down Euro Freeze in Northern Ireland, and called for companies to check the status of their products originating from the cold storage operator.
This FSA-led investigation began following a Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) visit to the coldstore at Lisnaskea on 9 November, accompanied by the police. The premises were secured and product detained.
The premises remain closed and the FSA suspended the coldstore's operating licence on 18 November.
DARD's raid was sparked by activity involving Euro Freeze in August 2005. DARD informed the FSA that chicken originating from China, for importation into Northern Ireland via Greece, was seized at Belfast port and subsequently destroyed by DARD officials on animal health grounds.
The FSA said its investigations relate to a large quantity of foodstuffs found in the company's coldstore. The FSA is focusing its enquiry on repackaging and re-labelling activity on the premises.
"Emerging evidence suggests the use of illicit health marks," the FSA alleged in a previous press release. "Apparently legitimate products correctly health marked were also found on the premises."
On 1 January this year EU laws on traceability that entered into force on 1 January 2005. The laws harmonises the bloc's requirements on the traceability of food products, the withdrawal of dangerous products from the market, operator responsibilities and requirements applicable to imports and exports.
The new mandatory traceability requirement applies to all food, animal feed, food-producing animals and all types of food chain operators from the farming sector to processing, transport, storage, distribution and retail to the consumer.
All information on the name, address of producer, nature of products and date of transaction must be systematically registered within each operator's traceability system. The law requires the information to be kept for a period of five years and on request, it must immediately be made available to regulators.