Food sector accreditation bodies such as Red Tractor and BRC Global Services have been criticised for the “patchwork” nature of their processes and the fact that even “unannounced” inspections come with a 30-minute warning.
The claims are contained in a new report from the cross-party Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee into recent allegations of poor practice at a 2 Sisters Food Group poultry plant in West Bromwich.
The inquiry followed undercover filming by ITV and The Guardian newspaper, which showed chicken being picked up off the floor and returned to the production line, and workers apparently changing the slaughter dates on crates of chicken.
The Efra investigation aimed to find out what steps had been taken by the company in response to these allegations, and also examined the performance of the Food Standards Authority (FSA) and accreditation companies when inspecting and auditing such plants.
In their report, the MPs describe the accreditation system as “somewhat patchwork”.
“There is no systematic process for bringing together the various audits and assessments conducted by different accreditation and regulatory bodies,” they said. “As such, there is no single,overarching view about standards in a particular plant or facility.”
The Efra committee noted that Red Tractor has since agreed to increase the frequency of unannounced visits to 2 Sisters’ factories. But it questioned the validity of such visits.
“Even an unannounced visit gives processors a period of around 30 minutes’ grace before the inspection begins and as a result people will tend to be on their best behaviour,” it noted.
The report also explained that, despite its size and importance, the West Bromwich site was one of four 2 Sisters facilities that were able to opt out of such “surprise” accreditation audits.
“For an industry which takes pride in the quality of its produce, we were surprised to hear of the apparently patchwork nature of the accreditation process,” said the report.
“It appears relatively simple for someone to ‘game’ the system and hide infractions, while the lack of joined-up intelligence and knowledge-sharing seemingly presents many gaps into which misdemeanours can fall.”
As for the performance of the FSA and the local authority, the Efra report suggested that their inspection regimes are not rigorous enough, given that 2 Sisters’ past record on hygiene is “far from pristine”.
The bodies need to “take better account both of its management’s history and the facility’s role in the food chain and the number of farmers and suppliers who rely on it”.
According to Efra committee chairman Neil Parish, the inquiry should serve as a “wake-up call”.
“Food supply chains are sensitive and easy to disrupt when retailers and consumers lose confidence in food quality or safety,” he said. “Large producers and retailers have a responsibility to protect, rather than undermine, the UK’s food producers.”
Production up and running again
2 Sisters owner Ranjit Singh Boparan was interviewed by the Efra committee on 25 October, and has subsequently written to the chairman confirming what action the company is taking.
In particular, a full-time FSA inspector has now been positioned at the West Bromwich site, where production has recently resumed. This is now being rolled out across all other plants.
Mr Singh Boparan has also invited Efra committee members to visit any site, unannounced, and is installing CCTV, with complete coverage in all plants.
2 Sisters is also conducting its own internal inquiry into all the allegations. “We look forward to updating the committee on progress in the New Year,” said a spokesman.
The committee said it was pleased to hear of the steps being taken.