There are growing fears within the industry that as much as 20 per cent of the 1 billion litres of wine consumed annually in the UK is either fake or imported illegally / Getty
New FSA department was set up after last year's horsemeat scandal

Major drinks companies are not doing enough to prevent widespread wine fraud and stop customers being ripped off in independent shops and restaurants, food experts have warned. The scale of wine fraud has become so great at all levels of the market that a new investigative unit of the Food Standards Agency will begin work next month on how to tackle it.

The launch of the agency's £2m Food Crime Unit (FCU), set up after last year's horsemeat scandal, coincides with growing fears within the industry that as much as 20 per cent of the 1 billion litres of wine consumed annually in the UK is either fake or imported illegally.

The FCU focus follows a major report from the University of Portsmouth's Centre for Counter Fraud Studies, which found food and drinks firms could be losing more than £11.2bn a year to fraud. Its author, Jim Gee, said "drink fraud is the crime in our baskets", adding an average 28p to the cost of a bottle of wine.

A two-day Government Chemist conference hosted by the Royal Society last month, called Beating the Cheats, brought together scientists, enforcement agencies and policy-makers to discuss combating the crime.

Geoff Taylor, from food and drink industry advisers Campden BRI, who has spent 30 years as a technical analyst in the alcohol industry, explained that wine fraud could be divided into three areas: the fine wine market, the mass volume UK market, with bottles priced between £5 and £20, and the mass market of bottles priced between £5 and £10. He recommended that shoppers study the codes on wine-bottle labels, saying that "imported and bottled by W", followed by four numbers, indicates that the drink has been bottled in the UK.

The Consumer Reports Money Adviser online magazine warned against fraud in its December issue, for wine investors. It said: "Wine investing has attracted much attention from investors... and it has also become a target of fraudsters. Most of the stuff they sell is old wine in new bottles, and their marketing techniques have the hallmarks of many other scams: cold calling, 'guaranteed' returns, and high-pressure sales tactics... Overseas, there have been reports of fraudsters using websites with names similar to legitimate outfits, looking to bilk unsuspecting buyers."

Expert Geoff Taylor recommends that shoppers check wine bottles’ labels

Another food safety expert spoke out last week claiming that wine fraud had been "grossly underestimated". The unnamed expert told the Food Manufacture website: "The industry needs to do more and work closely with the Government to have a positive effect on [wine fraud]."

William Boyack, spokesman for the Wine and Spirit Trade Association, welcomed the news that the FCU will begin investigating wine fraud next month. He said the vast majority of fraud concerns duty tax evasion, estimating that the Treasury is losing out on around £1bn a year through unpaid tariffs; wine duty fraud makes up around £200m of this.

He added that supermarket shoppers should not worry. "There are very good safeguards in place and I've seen no instances of counterfeits being sold in supermarkets. The problem is far more likely in independent stores or restaurants which scammers are more likely to target."

The Swiss winemaker Dominique Giroud was last week cleared of wine fraud after a five-year investigation. He had been accused of illegally topping up tens of thousands of bottles with unapproved wine. Giroud had already been convicted of tax fraud earlier in the year, making 2014, for him, a vintage to forget.