Fighting Food & Drink Fraud

30 Mar 2016

Earlier this month, I was one of around 100 participants at a conference on Counterfeiting of foodstuffs, beverages and agricultural products organised by Europol, the EU's law enforcement agency, the EU Intellectual Property Office and Eurojust, the EU agency for judicial cooperation. It was a cosmopolitan gathering of police, prosecutors, customs and producers' associations, like the SWA with representatives from 27 EU member states, as well as Serbia, Norway and various international organisations.

Held at the EU IPO's headquarters in Alicante over three days, it was a combination of presentations and workshops, as well as less formal opportunities for networking. I spoke to the conference about the global legal protection work of the SWA, with particular emphasis on the problems of ensuring that bulk spirits imported into the EU comply with the legal definition of whisky. Others presented on a wide range of topics including a very eloquent talk on the importance of protecting plant breeders' rights, a little known form of intellectual property which is nevertheless critical in safeguarding the global food chain.

Some of the information was quite daunting. A speaker from UNICRI, the United Nations institution conducting research into crime and justice, explained how in some parts of Southern Europe, legitimate food businesses can be taken over by criminal gangs. Initially seen as a means of laundering money, these businesses become criminal enterprises themselves, manufacturing products such as fake Mozzarella cheese. The gangs can then intimidate legitimate catering businesses to purchase exclusively from them at the expense of genuine producers. The growth of online business to business and business to consumer sales of foodstuffs is also posing a challenge to traditional policing methods.

Nevertheless, my overall impression was a positive one. When I joined the SWA in 2001, a conference of this type would have been unthinkable, and the fact that food fraud is now taken so seriously is a major step forward. In the workshops, I received a clear message that prosecutors around Europe want to take cases against those who make fake food and drink, which is encouraging to us in our work to protect Scotch Whisky.

Perhaps the one message that I took away was the need to continue to improve communication. Historically, there has been limited sharing of information between law enforcement on the one hand and food and drink producers on the other. As was evident from my three days, this is beginning to change and that is a very good thing.

Lindesay Low is senior legal counsel at the Scotch Whisky Association.