Food standards system ‘easy to game’

20 November 2017

Food standards accreditation in the UK is of a patchwork nature and easy to game, a committee of MPs has said.

In a report into the standards failings at a 2 Sisters Food Group chicken processing plant earlier this year, the Environment, Foods and Rural Affairs Committee said it appeared to be easy to “game the system” by opting out of unannounced accreditation visits.

It also found these spot visits gave facilities half an hour’s notice, enough time for people to “be on their best behaviour”.

The MPs’ report followed a month-long investigation into the hygiene and health and safety failings brought to light by undercover reporters in a 2 Sisters factory.

Journalists for the Guardian and ITV News produced undercover footage of workers altering the slaughter date of poultry, dropping chickens on the floor and mixing birds with different “kill dates”.

The MPs’ report said the 2 Sister’s West Bromwich plant was able to opt out of unannounced accreditation audits despite its size and importance to the food chain.

It also raised concerns over the laxity of oversight by regulators given that the problems at the 2 Sisters plant were “not a one-off” and that the group’s past record was “far from pristine”.

The report found private sector accreditation schemes failed to communicate vital information to each other and MPs were “surprised to hear of the apparently patchwork nature of the accreditation process”.

“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,” the report said.

In their investigation, the MPs found Assured Food Standards (AFS), the private sector organisation that provides the Red Tractor accreditation scheme, did not immediately tell the Food Standards Agency (FSA) that it had suspended 2 Sisters’ accreditation.

AFS re-accredited the West Bromwich plant a week after it was suspended as an inspection was unable to find “anything at the time of that visit that demonstrated that the issues were still occurring”.

The report said it was especially concerned with how different auditing bodies kept the results of investigations to themselves and how statutory regulatory agencies, including the FSA and the local authority, failed to find safety violations uncovered by journalists. 

The FSA told the committee it had “no intelligence… that would give us any cause for concern” over the West Bromwich plant prior to the media reports, and Sandwell Council, the responsible local authority, admitted to the committee that: “Perhaps we did not know this company as well as we thought we did.” 

The FSA is conducting its own investigation into the firm.

Ranjit Singh Boparan, the chief executive of 2 Sisters, told the MPs a full time FSA inspector is now based at the West Bromwich plant and that CCTV would be installed across the entire site.

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