Assurance suspended for supplier at heart of beef fraud scandal

Farmers Weekly has prompted the suspension of the assurance certification of Loscoe Chilled Foods, the company that sold South American beef labelled “best British” to upmarket retailer Booths. 

As of Wednesday (15 March), the company was still displaying its Brand Reputation through Compliance (BRCGS) logo on its website – a global supply chain assurance mark needed to sell to UK retailers.

See also: ‘British only’ supermarket involved in major beef fraud probe

But following queries from Farmers Weekly, the certification body said it was suspending the site’s certificate as of 15 March. 

In a statement, Mike Wilson, senior vice president at LGC Assure, said: “BRCGS became aware of an active investigation on 10 March 2023 through a news article published by the BBC. 

“The article did not mention the site involved, and BRCGS did not receive confirmation that the investigation related to a BRGCS certificated site until today. 

“Upon becoming aware that the implicated site holds a BRGCS certificate, BRCGS has acted swiftly in conjunction with the issuing certification body to support the certification body’s suspension of the certificate of the site – as of today – pending the outcome of further investigations.”

100t of goods

Schools, hospitals and government departments are among the other customers of Derbyshire-based Loscoe Chilled Foods, which claims to deliver 100t of goods every week to the largest food service companies and retailers in the country.

A spokesperson admitted its involvement to Farmers Weekly on Tuesday (14 March), saying the business was supporting the Food Standards Agency (FSA) with its investigation.

They claimed it was an “isolated issue concerning sliced corned beef to a single customer in March 2021”.

But the FSA has revealed the probe, which involves the review of 1.3m documents, is looking at a range of pre-packed meat and deli products.

While the FSA and National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) have said the probe only involves a single supermarket, they have not confirmed whether they are looking at sales made by Loscoe to other non-retailer customers.

Loscoe said there was no suggestion anyone else was involved.

Tony Goodger from the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers said: “It is only through the tenacity of Farmers Weekly that we found out the issue related to sliced cooked beef and that the supermarket in question is Booths.

“As ever though, this simply leaves more questions which the National Food Crime Unit and FSA now need to answer,” he added, saying other customers needed reassurance they were not involved.

One-off ‘highly unlikely’

Food crime expert Chris Elliott, who headed up the government-commissioned inquiry into the horsemeat scandal, claimed this incident was “highly unlikely” to be a one-off, but was a symptom of the wider pressure the processing industry is under.

“We have got all of the massive price pressures right now,” said Prof Elliott.

“Beef prices are going through the roof, particularly for home-produced beef; we have got a cost-of-living crisis and suppliers being squeezed by the retailers. It is just the perfect storm.”

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, also warned the pressure to commit food fraud would grow as trade deals allow more cheaper imported products into the country.

“The more we try to make sure home-produced product is getting a premium, the more temptation there will be to cash in on it by mislabelling,” he said.

Darren Davies, head of NFCU at the Food Standards Agency said: “The FSA’s National Food Crime Unit is carrying out a criminal investigation into how one UK retailer was allegedly supplied with pre-packed sliced meat and deli products labelled as British when they were in fact sourced from South America and Europe.

“The retailer was notified on the same day that we took action against the food business suspected of the fraud and immediately removed all affected products from their shelves.

“The retailer is not under investigation and continues to work closely and cooperatively with the NFCU to progress the case against the supplier. This is not a food safety issue but a matter of alleged food fraud.”

Loscoe also claims on its website to have been awarded Red Tractor (RT) approval in 2017, but the assurance body said this was only a certificate to cut pork, as part of the meat and poultry processing assurance scheme.

“This gave no permission to use the logo in any way,” a spokesperson added.

“As with BRCGS, we have suspended that certification. Because they never had a Red Tractor licence, they have never been approved to use the RT logo or claim on any product, paperwork or marketing material.”

Questions still to be answered by Booths

High-end northern supermarket Booths, dubbed “the Waitrose of the North”, has been unveiled as the supermarket embroiled in the scandal.

The retailer, which has branches in Lancashire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Greater Manchester, North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire, said it was “categorically not under investigation”.

It was also “absolutely confident” in its British-only meat commitment, with the exception of the “limited selection of cooked meat products” affected in 2021.

Food crime expert Chris Elliott said the supermarket still had questions to answer. 

The retailer continues to stock produce from Yorkshire smokehouse Mackenzies, a company that has just gone into liquidation, owing money to local butchers and meat suppliers.

Paul Palmer, managing director at Mackenzies Farm Shop, is a former director of Bleikers, which was involved in a separate National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) investigation into country of origin fraud.

He has since put the company, Mackenzies Farm Shop and Café, into his wife’s name, allowing it to continue trading under the Mackenzies brand.

Prof Elliott said: “Booths should not get away just by saying they are a victim as well. It really should have shown up in their audits.”

A Booths spokesperson said: “In 18 months of lengthy and in-depth investigations, the NFCU has never once raised any issue or concern around the Booths audit processes.”

They added that the supermarket does stock a range of Mackenzies products, but it would be “inappropriate” for them to comment on another company’s business affairs.

UPDATE 17/03/2023: An earlier version of this article stated that Farmers Weekly has prompted the cancellation of the assurance certification of Loscoe Chilled Foods. This has been corrected to reflect the suspension of Loscoe’s assurance certification.

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