The scandal at the 2 Sisters chicken factory should act as a “wake-up call” to the UK food regulator which has presided over a system in which it is simple to “hide infractions,” a report by a committee of MPs has found.
The report, resulting from an inquiry called by the Commons’ environment, food and rural affairs committee (Efra) in the wake of an undercover investigation by the Guardian and ITV News, also said that the problems identified at the site were “not a one-off” at the company. MPs said they were “concerned at the apparent laxity of the oversight” of the West Bromwich plant considering the history of the food processor.
The report will be viewed as a scathing critique of the food safety inspection regime, which involves the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and local authorities assessing food production facilities alongside separate teams from private food standards schemes and the supermarkets.
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The committee recommended that these bodies should start pooling their intelligence, that the FSA’s food crime unit should receive an increased budget and that compulsory CCTV monitoring of all meat-cutting plants should be considered.
“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,” the MPs said.
“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, not just those who appeared before us, will use this incident as a wake-up call to tighten their processes and remove some of the more obvious loopholes.”
A spokesman for the FSA said: “The FSA welcomes the findings of the Efra select committee and will make a formal response in due course. We are continuing to investigate the allegations made by ITV and the Guardian concerning the 2 Sisters poultry plant in West Bromwich and will publish our findings when the work is completed.”
MPs began their inquiry after the Guardian and ITV News undercover footage showed workers altering the slaughter date of poultry processed at a plant in West Bromwich and returning chicken that had fallen on the floor to the production line.
The group produces a third of all poultry products eaten in the UK and supplies supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Aldi and Lidl.
All five began their own investigations and suspended deliveries from the factory, which was shut for five weeks to retrain staff.
The site reopened at the start of this month following “significant changes” at the facility and the introduction of full-time FSA officials to oversee its procedures. Of the five supermarket groups supplied by the site, only Sainsbury’s is yet to recommence deliveries.
The committee’s report added: “The problems identified at the 2 Sisters 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.
“That being the case, we are concerned at the apparent laxity of the oversight of the [West Bromwich] facility, an incredibly important part of the poultry food chain.”
However, the committee shied away from further direct criticism of the company saying: “We do not propose to examine in depth whether 2 Sisters has been in breach of food safety regulation or food hygiene best practice, neither will we suggest sanctions.”
A spokesman for 2 Sisters said: “We note the content of the report and look forward to updating the committee on progress in the new year.”
During the committee’s hearings Ranjit Singh Boparan, the boss of 2 Sisters Food Group, apologised for the scandal but contested that altering the kill date labels was a breach of regulations, instead saying the workers were correcting erroneous slaughter dates.
The worker shown changing the kill dates in the footage has been dismissed, after the company instigated disciplinary proceedings citing allegations he had breached food safety regulations.
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