The Environment, Foods and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee said it was surprised to hear of the apparently patchwork nature of the accreditation process in a report on 2 Sisters Food Group and poultry standards.
“It appears relatively simple for someone to game the system and hide infractions – by opting out of unannounced visits by the accreditors for example – and the lack of joined up intelligence and knowledge-sharing seemingly presents many gaps into which misdemeanours can fall.
“We trust that all accreditation firms…will use this incident as a wake-up call to tighten their processes and remove some of the more obvious loopholes.
“We further trust that the confidentiality issues which apparently prevent the systematic sharing of data and intelligence can be worked around so that a single unified record of standards and hygiene practices can be kept to better identify failings.”
Guardian and ITV investigation
The committee recommended that the FSA works with accreditation companies and provides an update in the next six months.
Neil Parish MP, chair, said: "Food supply chains are sensitive and easy to disrupt when retailers and consumers lose confidence in food quality or safety. Large producers and retailers have a responsibility to protect, rather than undermine, the UK’s food producers."
The Guardian and ITV released undercover footage of the poultry plant in West Bromwich run by 2 Sisters filmed in July 2017.
It showed workers changing poultry slaughter dates so extending “best before” and “use by” dates; workers altering records of where chickens were slaughtered, potentially hindering authorities from recalling any contaminated meat and chickens dropped on the processing plant floor and returned to the production line.
Assured Food Standards said it would increase frequency of unannounced visits to 2 Sisters but the report found these are not a complete surprise as they gives processors around 30 minutes’ before the inspection begins and people will ‘tend to be on their best behaviour’.
EFRA: Problems not a one off
The EFRA committee said problems identified at the plant at West Bromwich are not a one-off.
“The past record of the 2 Sisters Food Group is far from pristine and there are valid questions to be asked of its corporate governance structure. Any risk management assessment which did not give this plant the highest priority and the most stringent levels of scrutiny is flawed.”
FSA identified ‘management issues’ around stock management and staff training at the site but no regulatory breaches.
The agency expanded scope of the investigation to include all eleven 2 Sisters plants in England and Wales with Food Standards Scotland investigating the 2 Sisters plant in Dundee.
The FSA recently published findings on the potential for the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standards assurance scheme to play a part in regulated private assurance.
It found while there is commonality between BRC Global Standards audits and competent authority inspections, there is a perceived difference in the purpose, assessment focus and approach.
A competent authority inspection focuses on assessment of any risk to public health and compliance against legislation but the focus of BRC Global Standards audits is to assess compliance against requirements of the standard.
The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers said controls would be more effective if FSA was to monitor delivery with action in meat plants being done by separate bodies.
“The agency has also become highly dependent on the income it receives from carrying out official controls. Its focus appears to be more concerned with the quantity of controls delivered, rather than the quality.”
2 Sisters resumes production
2 Sisters processes around six million chickens each week which is one-third of the total in the UK.
The firm suspended operations at the site but production recommenced last week.
Ranjit Singh Boparan, chief executive of the 2 Sisters Food Group, told the committee a full-time FSA inspector is now at the West Bromwich cutting plant and ‘Mystery workers’ would be based in poultry factories by the end of January 2018.
“The commitments are on the public record and we will be closely monitoring their implementation with a view to investigating further if required,” said Parish.
“It is important that consumers in both the UK and in our vital export markets feel confident in the quality of our food standards. We have made it quite clear that we take his assurances very seriously."