The UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) has launched a public consultation on proposed enhanced investigatory powers for the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU), FSA’s law enforcement unit, in England and Wales under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act of 1984 (PACE). FSA aims to secure further legal powers for NFCU that will enable the agency to effectively investigate food crime with autonomy, and will reduce its dependency on partners like local authorities and police.

The consultation, which is open until August 6, 2023, is most relevant to legislators, ministerial and non-ministerial government departments concerned with food safety and fraud investigation, those working in policing and enforcement, professional standards bodies and inspectorates, the devolved administrations, local authorities, trading standards officers, environmental and public health professionals, food business operators and trade bodies, consumers, and civil liberties organizations.

In 2022, FSA sought public opinion on NFCU access to enhanced investigatory powers following the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act of 2022 (PCSC), for which constituent support was strong and Royal Assent was received. PCSC contains a power for the Secretary of State to make regulations extending certain additional statutory powers to NFCU. However, secondary legislation is required for these powers to be extended.

The present consultation seeks stakeholder views on an additional investigatory power for NFCU laid out in PACE, specifically, powers of entry and search after arrest which are listed under Section 18 of the legislation. Recent operational activity has highlighted that not having access to section 18 powers can create a significant disadvantage to the ability of NFCU officers lawfully enter premises and assist with searches following an arrest.  

NFCU currently relies on a partnership agreement with the National Police Chiefs’ Council that provides support as an interim measure. If NFCU is granted section 18 powers of search and entry, the police presence required in the event of case arrests would be significantly reduced. The additional powers are intended to be a sustainable long-term solution that would strengthen NFCU’s ability to tackle food fraud and protect consumers.  

Andrew Quinn, FSA’s Acting Head of NFCU, expressed that any powers of entry and search granted to NFCU will be restrained, focusing on effective regulation to prevent and detect food crime, and subject to robust controls and external scrutiny.

Separate legislation governing investigatory powers applies in Northern Ireland. FSA intends to hold a consultation for Northern Ireland in the future. The consultation does not apply to Scotland, where Food Standards Scotland’s dedicated Scottish Food Crime and Incidents Unit is responsible for delivering food crime response.