Illegal meat investigation: 'Operation Fox'
Tuesday 18 September 2007
'Operation Fox' was an investigation into a large-scale fraud involving the passing of condemned poultry meat back into the human food chain. This led to the conviction at Hull Crown Court in 2000 of the meat-fraud gang, receiving combined sentences of 18 years.
An anonymous tip-off to Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council led to the investigation into the nationwide multi-million pound food fraud, which involved diverting rotten pet food meat back into the human food chain.
The investigation revealed that unfit poultry meat from slaughterhouses was taken to a pet food processing plant, and from there it was taken by brokers and cleaners to further brokers, and ultimately to cold stores, wholesalers and retailers where it was sold to the public. All of the food companies in the chain were either licensed or registered with the exception of the brokers and the cleaner of the poultry.
Documents seized showed that the fraud had been ongoing since the early 1970’s in various guises, but the substantial part of the fraud had been established in the mid 1980’s. Documentary evidence seized during raids showed various profit sharing arrangements throughout the chain of the fraud.
It was found that to change the status of meat from condemned to human grade food, simple fraudulent changes were made to the invoices and other paperwork and health marks were introduced to indicate that the meat was from human food suppliers. In addition, recycled packaging was used and duplicate bookkeeping and false invoices kept to satisfy anyone from either the pet food or human food industry that the meat had either gone on to become pet food, or had been purchased from human food companies respectively. All the products were accompanied by appropriate health marks and paperwork to demonstrate their legitimacy. For this reason, audits and inspections undertaken by various agencies had not revealed any wrong doing.
Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council was fortunate to get a tip-off that lead to the cleaner of the poultry, who was the only one in the chain without any clear chain of traceability. This allowed details of the fraud to be revealed and place sufficient pressure on the individual to provide accurate and reliable information about the others involved in the fraud.
The waste product from the cleaner of the poultry was sufficient to supply chicken and turkey to 400 retailers in both Yorkshire and the North Midlands. In addition, the conspirators were charged for recycling 1,500 tonnes of unfit meat into the human food chain over a 3-year period.
The large-scale investigation involved 18 premises being entered under warrant. Accountants and over 300 people were interviewed in accordance with the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. In addition, over 500,000 documents and 20 computers were seized. The cost to the local authority for undertaking the investigation was £750,000.
The investigation resulted in ten people being charged under Conspiracy to Defraud, rather than the Food Safety Act 1990, as the penalties in the latter did not appear to reflect the gravity of the offence. A number of other suspected individuals and companies who were not charged have since been implicated in other investigations.