Is there something systemically wrong in the UK’s food safety system? That’s the question buyers and regulators are asking, after serious scandals have rocked two major meat processors in less than six months.
Last September, supermarkets pulled chicken supplied by 2 Sisters Food Group after an exposé by The Guardian revealed malpractice. And in January, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) halted all deliveries from Russell Hume after finding issues around use-by dates. (The firm has since gone into administration.)
The FSA and its Scottish equivalent, Food Standards Scotland, duly launched an industry-wide review of meat-cutting plants and cold stores. “People rightly expect food businesses to keep to the rules – to keep consumers safe and to sustain public trust in food. Businesses have a duty to follow the regulations,” said Heather Hancock, chair of the FSA.
Unannounced inspections have already had an impact. Fairfax Meadow voluntarily withdrew a number of products; and Muscle Food recalled meat supplied by DB Foods (the FSA said there was no indication anyone had become ill as a result). In both cases, the concern was over how products were dated.
Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, a coalition of food-sector non-profit organisations, is worried that UK food safety standards are being chipped away, and wants the review to assess the UK’s capacity to ensure food hygiene. “It’s not clear if we have enough safety officers and public health laboratory services,” she said. “We are already hearing that from environmental health officers, whose services have been pared to the bone over the last few years.”
Many smaller businesses rely on upstream checks to ensure food they buy is safe, but budget cuts are undermining this, an issue likely to be exacerbated once Brexit takes effect, Dalmeny said. “We want trade deals on food, so we have to show our ability to track problems and test meat for contaminants like salmonella.”
To some extent David Read, chairman of Prestige Purchasing, agrees. The catering butchery market ranges from large-scale suppliers with excellent supply chain management (among them, Russell Hume) right down to smaller suppliers with a lesser reputation, he explains. “To see a supplier like Russell Hume part of an investigation like this is deeply worrying,” said Read.
But, while these incidents would make him look again at his supply chain, he doesn’t share all of Dalmeny’s concerns. “There’s no reason to suspect that good hygiene practices are in place any less today than yesterday,” he said. Read believes hygiene and food safety is significantly better today than when he started out 30 years ago, as long as buyers carry out effective due diligence.
Dalmeny and Read do agree, however, that the industry cannot rest on its laurels. “These kind of things will continue to happen,” said Read. “So it’s really important for buyers to be aware of the risk and constantly monitor it.”