Darren Davies, the new head of the National Food Crime Unit has said in a radio interview with the BBC that he wants to see firms that fraudulently use cheaper substitutes criminally prosecuted.

Currently only a handful of companies are prosecuted each year. He said that food fraud rarely makes the news.

The last major incident was the 2013 horsemeat scandal although other products prone to substitution include olive oil and coffee.

According to a list drawn up by the EU Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, fraudsters typically mislabel cheap products as a premium product, such as horse meat for beef, or they might bulk out a pure product with a cheaper alternative. Fish, grains, honey, coffee, tea, spices, wine, certain fruit juices, milk and meat are the mostly common products subject to fraud.

Another common substitution is more expensive organic food being replaced by cheaper non-organic ingredients.

Darren Davis told BBC 5 live’s Wake Up To Money programme: “This is crime. We will be working with colleagues in different law enforcement sectors and local authorities initially to raid business premises and other locations where they are engaging in the most serious types of food crime.”

The National Food Crime Unit is the Food Standards Agency (FSA) criminal investigation division. Mr Davies said he intends to prioritise fraudsters who put consumer health at risk: “Clearly we will be far more concerned when that fraud or that adulteration of a food product has real physical harm and risk of harm to people, particularly the vulnerable, like people who have allergies.”

Adding to the coverage, Sian Edmunds, a partner at Burges-Salmon, a law firm which specialises in food and drink regulation, told the BBC: “There are potentially very serious safety issues. I had a case recently involving the supplier of a pesto product. Pesto is normally made with pine nuts but in this product the pine-nuts had been replaced with peanuts, which is a cheaper product but of course is one of the major allergens.”

The programme revealed that research carried out last year by NFU Mutual suggested that food fraud costs the UK food and drink industry up to £12bn a year. While the risk to health is seen as the most serious issue, there are also significant financial losses associated with fraud of this type.

Prof Chris Elliott, founder of the Institute for Global Food Security also said: “If you are buying from major UK retailers then you can feel pretty safe because an enormous amount of work has been done since 2014 in terms of retailers getting on top of those people who cheat. Big retailers have a phenomenal testing process in place.”

He added that he sees probably two and certainly less than five prosecutions for food fraud reported in the UK each year, stating that food chains were now so complicated that a jar of pesto in a supermarket could have had 40 or 50 different businesses involved in its production and distribution.