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The case of the chicken packers

by Tony Spit

There are huge economic demands on the food processing industry with profit margins constantly being challenged. Therefore cases of mismanagement, corner cutting and fobbing off of audits are bound to happen. The 2013 ‘horsemeat scandal’ exposed the grave loopholes that existed in the meat industry and yes, government agencies glued those holes shut, putting perpetrators in prison and sending a clear message to the few unscrupulous primary produce suppliers that such activity will not be tolerated. It was then, with some disbelief, that I read the 28 September article appearing in ‘The Guardian’ written by Simon Goodley.

ITVnews and ‘The Guardian’ infiltrated a West Bromwich chicken processing firm belonging to the 2 Sisters Food Group.  The video shows workers changing reference codes of batches of chicken, effectively changing the location as to where the birds where slaughtered.  Furthermore, the slaughter date of older chicken portions was falsified by replacing batch stick-on labels with labels stating a newer slaughter date.  These portions where then mixed with portions slaughtered at the later date.  The newer (false) date would be used by the food processor labeller to generate a label stating a fresher but incorrect ‘best-by’ date and ‘use by’ date during packaging.  This data would be used by supermarkets and trusted by consumers.  

How did the situation manage to arise?  Perhaps a glance at the Food Standards Agency is warranted here.  Earlier this year the FSA published a proposal entitled “Regulating our Future” in which they proposed a reduction of food safety standard inspections of the major retailers within the UK.  More attention, it stated, would be spent on the smaller producers and suppliers, whom, it was implied, was less able or more ignorant in applying safety standards.  The larger retailers, it was suggested, could outsource their inspections to commercial contractors who would audit and verify the safety of these commercial giants. Professor Erik Millstone of Sussex University points out in an open letter, that this leads to a situation that: “could allow the supermarkets and their commercial contractors to keep unwelcome news out of the public domain, while the information gathered by local authority environmental health officers and public analysts [i.e. of smaller enterprises. Ed.] would more likely be made public, as it would be subject to the provisions of freedom of information legislation”.  He further suggests that this situation has arisen because government has cut the Agency’s budget and thus put strain on the agency’s budget.  This is borne out by a Professor Chris Elliot whom, since his report on the horsemeat scandal, states that the number of health safety inspectors have dropped from 1,050 in 2009-10 to 736 in 2014–15.  This coupled with the decreasing Environmental Health Budget has led to a 70% decrease in inspector visits to businesses.

The Food Standards Agency has now taken an interest in the report.  On October 6th they disclosed that they are investigating two further sites belonging to the 2 Sisters Food Group.  So far, they state, they have not found any evidence of criminal activity but have noted mismanagement in staff training and stock control.  They are waiting for further evidence from both ITVnews and ‘The Guardian’.  That’s how the matter sits for the moment. However, several of the affected retail chains, two days after the ‘scandal’ broke, have claimed to cease shelving the product – an expensive consequence for the 2 Sisters Group.  

The FSA song would be different had there been an outbreak of disease or poisoning due to contamination within the food supply.  With incorrect labelling and incorrect source coding a source of contamination would be impossible to find and a batch recall would be useless.  The blame of such a disaster would not fall on these supply giants, but rather fall at the feet of the smaller players further down the supply chain.  Small as they may be, but collectively a significant part of the food and beverage industry.  Such a scenario would lead to a further degradation of consumer confidence in the food industry.  The 2 Sisters Group, said to be worth £3 billion, will survive any scandal, casualties of the smaller players could be enormous.

Although this current incident has occurred in the soon to be (bizarrely) divorced UK, there is every chance it could happen within the EU at a later time.  It is up to stakeholders in the food industry to insist that a suitably funded and capable agency monitor the different aspects of the industry, in an unbiased, fair and practical manner.  
This would help to alleviate consumer scepticism and distrust.


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