Fighting fake food & drink

13 Jun 2013

High-profile scandals in the European Union (EU) have brought food fraud to the top of the political agenda, presenting new opportunities in our campaign to protect Scotch Whisky.

Recent developments have also emphasised how fortunate we are that the Scotch Whisky industry has always invested in securing legal protection. This foresight has proved very beneficial in our fight against imitators looking to cash in on the popularity of Scotch Whisky.

The issue of protecting quality food and drink was an area of discussion at a conference I recently attended in Italy. I represented the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) at a conference in Rome organised by INTERPOL and EUROPOL, the international and EU policing authorities respectively. The event was designed to encourage the sharing of intelligence to secure better enforcement action against food fraud. It provided a chance to review their Operation OPSON II which targets fake and substandard food and drink and the organised crime networks behind illicit trade.  Participating in the conference helped generate wider support from the police and other relevant authorities for our work in protecting Scotch Whisky. It also allowed me to develop new contacts, some of whom have already provided meaningful information to assist our investigations.

More than 20 different countries plus a number of food and drink companies were represented in Rome. I was particularly impressed by non-EU members, such as Cote d'Ivoire and Belarus, who were not only tackling fraud in their own countries in difficult circumstances, but who also made a considerable effort just to attend the conference.

We heard from Italian producers of geographically protected products as well as from customs and police officers from around the world. The reports covered everything from fizzy drinks that had passed their sell by date being shipped from Europe to Africa to fake caviar made from snails' eggs. I was also given an opportunity to introduce the SWA and its work.

I explained how, historically, enforcement authorities, such as the UK's own Food Standards Agency, were primarily interested in whether or not a product was harmful to human health. Because the vast majority of fake "Scotch" does not fall into that category, it was often dismissed as a labelling issue for the industry to sort out itself. The focus however has now changed and governments and police forces are taking the mis-description of foodstuffs much more seriously.  I believe this is partly because of the recent public concern about the origins of what we are eating and drinking and partly because organised criminals have come to see fake food as a low risk source of income.

At the conference, I was struck by the similarity of the problems that everyone faced. For example genuine olive oil is mixed with inferior fats in the same way we as we see genuine Scotch mixed with neutral alcohol, and also the passion that the producers felt for their products.  I heard how many other foods are copied in the USA and elsewhere because they are not recognised as protected geographical names under local law, unlike Scotch Whisky which is internationally recognised as being produced exclusively in Scotland.

My overall impression was that those taking part were motivated and enthusiastic about their work. The SWA has signed up to the follow-on project, OPSON III, and a week of action against food fraud, is planned for the end of 2013.

Lindesay Low, Scotch Whisky Association Legal Adviser