Unite: 2 Sisters findings ‘symptomatic’ of industry pressures

By Joseph James Whitworth

- Last updated on GMT

Picture: iStock/Wiktory. The EFRA inquiry heard from FSA, BRC, BPC, 2 Sisters
Picture: iStock/Wiktory. The EFRA inquiry heard from FSA, BRC, BPC, 2 Sisters

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Suspected food safety breaches at a 2 Sisters site are ‘symptomatic’ of pressures within the wider industry, according to Unite.

The union called for ‘swift and comprehensive change at every level of the company’ to raise pay and conditions, working practices and procedure. It has membership in 2 Sisters Food Group.

Drivers include increasing downward cost pressures, driven by supermarket competition impacting food manufacturing supply chains.

Comments were made in written evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee inquiry.

Safeguards to ensure no repeat

The inquiry is looking at the role and performance of the Food Standards Agency, Sandwell Metropolitan Council and accreditation bodies.

The EFRA Committee took action after reports of malpractice at a 2 Sisters poultry plant in West Bromwich raised in an ITV News/Guardian​​​ investigation.

It is investigating potential ramifications of the allegations for the poultry sector and wider food chain.

2 Sisters temporarily suspended operations at the site after the allegations were made.

Neil Parish, chair of the committee, said: "We hope that looking into the recent reports of malpractice at the 2 Sisters plant will assist in rectifying the situation and putting in place safeguards that mean similar incidents do not happen again.

“This case highlights how important it is for the regulatory and accreditation bodies to work together effectively and restore confidence in both public food hygiene and farming across the country."

Unite said there is intense competition between companies and the pace of work is intensifying.

Meat processing, including in the poultry industry, is difficult work in difficult working conditions. Recruiting and retaining workers is a continual process because of high levels of turnover; workers face low rates of pay, poor working conditions (e.g. temperatures, humidity) and intensive levels of physical demand.

Intense pressure to fulfil retailers’ orders and volumes at the same time as a continual drive to cut costs, Unite believes, created the pre-conditions in which the dangerous food hygiene practices identified by the Guardian and ITV developed.

“The race to the bottom has to be reversed and a workplace culture created that has the highest standards on labour rights and food hygiene.”

Breaches despite safeguards

Unite said it shared the ‘disquiet’ about regulatory capture of enforcement agencies with cuts in budgets affecting the capacity and effectiveness of enforcement bodies.

The alleged breaches of food hygiene at West Bromwich have taken place despite the presence of a wide range of regulations, duties, accreditation schemes, principles and guidance, supermarket auditing, and agencies tasked with upholding them.

With regard specifically to the FSA and its effectiveness in connection with the West Bromwich site, Unite’s experience is that 2 Sisters is usually made aware of imminent auditing visits by the FSA before they take place, which gives the company the opportunity to prepare for the audit.”

The union added government’s policy of ‘light touch’ and ‘risk-based’ regulation needs to be reversed and unannounced visits by enforcement agencies including FSA need to be increased.

Variety of evidence

The inquiry heard from Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council; Jim Moseley, chief executive of Red Tractor and Sue Lockhart, head of assurance at Red Tractor; Mark Proctor, CEO and David Brackston, technical director of BRC Global Standards.

Jan Britton, chief executive, Sandwell Metropolitan Council; Bob Charnley, trading standards officer at the council; Jason Feeney, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency and Jose Gomez-Luengo, audit veterinary leader at FSA gave evidence.

Ranjit Singh Boparan, chief executive and Chris Gilbert-Wood, group technical director, spoke from 2 Sisters Food Group.

The British Poultry Council (BPC) said it is up to Food Business Operators (FBOs) to apply standards, meet legal responsibilities and produce safe food.

“In isolated instances where things go wrong, people make poor decisions and food standards are not met, it’s crucial that the business in question moves fast to acknowledge the problem, correct the situation and put measures in place to stop it from happening again,” ​​said Richard Griffiths.

In the US, Food & Water Watch has opposed a petition by the National Chicken Council (NCC) with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) to lift the line speed cap for poultry slaughter facilities set in the 2014 regulation creating the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS).

The cap on line speeds in chicken plants is 140 birds per minute (bpm) while initial plans set it at 175 bpm.

NCC said 20 plants in the HACCP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) provided the same or better levels of food safety than plants with a maximum line speed of 140 bpm.

“These establishments have proven that HIMP (and now NPIS) establishments can operate safely at the maximum speeds permitted, and there is no indication that higher line speeds would result in increased food safety or worker safety risk.”

NCC added waiving the line speed limits and allowing participants to operate at any speed at which they can maintain process control would encourage more uptake of NPIS.

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