Tesco food standards inspectors unearthed a series of “major” process issues at a second 2 Sisters Food Group factory, on the same weekend that separate concerns prompted the closure of the UK’s largest chicken supplier’s West Bromwich site.
Leaked documents show how in October the supermarket’s auditors gave what they described as a “red” warning rating to 2 Sisters’ chicken plant in Scotland, which supplies Asda, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Lidl, Aldi, Co-op and Iceland, as well as Tesco.
The report was part of a series of emergency inspections of 2 Sisters chicken factories that were conducted as a direct result of a Guardian and ITV undercover investigation into the food processing firm’s “Site D” factory in West Bromwich.
Tesco said that having unearthed process problems at the Coupar Angus plant in Perth and Kinross – which were all distinct from what was filmed at Site D – it “insisted these were addressed immediately to prevent any food safety issues”. The supermarket had previously rated the site as “green”.
The Guardian understands that further, unidentified, 2 Sisters factories were also marked as “red” during the same series of emergency inspections.
A “red” warning can be given for a number of reasons, including a single “critical” issue that puts food safety at risk. Coupar Angus was marked as “red” after Tesco auditors found five compliance issues it categorised as “major” – which the supermarket defines as “a deficiency which requires prompt attention to prevent a potential food safety failure or legal issue from arising”.
Fewer than 1% of Tesco supplier sites receive a “red” audit rating, the worst score in the supermarket’s internal colour-coded safety and quality compliance system. Processes and traceability are considered crucial within the food industry, as if they are compromised it potentially affects a supplier’s ability to guarantee its food is safe.
The Tesco audit documents state that the problems found at 2 Sisters’ Coupar Angus plant included:
Organic and non-organic chickens being mixed – with “insufficient evidence to support [corrective actions] and end product fate”.
A computer system that allowed all factory workers “to change UB [use-by] dates”.
“Several instances … of double labelling/no labelling”.
“Serious issues” with records designed to account for chickens earmarked for disposal, with auditors concluding “the site cannot fully demonstrate which products have been sent to waste”.
“Failed” efforts to trace chicken recorded as being despatched from the plant.
A spokesperson for 2 Sisters said that neither the mixed organic and standard chicken, nor poultry earmarked for disposal, had been despatched to customers. The company added it does not supply standard chicken as organic and that the crates of meat auditors had failed to trace had not entered the food chain.
On the subject of the site’s computer system allowing any worker to change use-by dates, 2 Sisters said: “There was no evidence that this was actually happening, even if this was theoretically possible (although only a trained employee would have the ability to do this) … Following the report, [2 Sisters has] taken steps to make the computer more secure, including moving it to a new location”.
The inspection was carried out after the airing of undercover footage at 2 Sisters’ West Bromwich plant that showed an instance of workers altering slaughter dates of chicken, the plant mixing older meat with fresh and workers returning chickens to the production line from the floor.
The chicken processor has denied the footage at that factory showed any food safety breaches and said it temporarily suspended production in West Bromwich three days later because of process failures, adding its “internal investigation has shown some isolated instances of non-compliance with our own quality management systems”.
Three days after the site was closed, Tesco chief executive Dave Lewis was asked by the Guardian what failings had been found internally by 2 Sisters that were serious enough to prompt a suspension in production. He declined to answer, but said the supermarket had since inspected all 12 of 2 Sisters’ chicken factories and that he believed the problems were contained to Site D.
Lewis said: “Having been to all the other [sites] … we didn’t find anything that would indicate that what was seen in West Bromwich was present in any of the other factory sites,” he said. “We did go to all other factories, so we don’t think our inspectors have had the wool pulled over their eyes.”
Tesco said that Lewis was talking about his inspection teams finding no evidence of food safety risks at 2 Sisters sites. The supermarket added that red ratings are not routinely shared with the chief executive, albeit at a time when questions about the transparency of the food inspection regime, plus general standards within the industry, were being raised by the public and MPs.
Since being contacted by the Guardian and ITV, Tesco has shared its emergency 2 Sisters inspection reports with food regulators.
After studying Tesco’s Coupar Angus audit findings Prof Chris Elliott, a food safety academic from Queen’s University Belfast, said: “This inspection seems to have been very thorough and details a series of what appear to be important systems failures. These do seem to mirror closely the issues identified at the West Bromwich factory [regarding the robustness of the traceability systems].”
“The audit contains no evidence of fraudulent practices by 2 Sisters at the site but the major failings identified, particularly the organic segregation and seeming lack of robust traceability, leaves the factory vulnerable.”
The Coupar Angus inspection did not find that the food produced was unsafe or that food safety regulations had been breached. Lawyers said that traceability rules were established to help ensure food safety – and if traceability is compromised, potentially so is a supplier’s ability to guarantee food safety.
Andy Bowles, a solicitor at ABC Food Law, said: “I think there are potential food safety concerns here. Traceability is about assuring supply chains to ensure raw materials [and] products are processed under appropriate conditions. If you lose traceability then you lose those assurances and therefore traceability is an inherent part of food safety … That is the concern here.”
A spokesperson for Tesco said: “When we became aware of the issues at 2 Sisters’ West Bromwich site, we immediately conducted an additional 46 visits and inspections across other 2 Sisters poultry sites.
“Our inspection [of Coupar Angus] highlighted a number of inadequate processes at this site, including labelling, segregation, traceability and recording. We insisted these were addressed immediately to prevent any food safety issues.
“[Tesco boss] Dave Lewis was made aware that these inspections had not identified breaches of food safety at other 2 Sisters sites. Specifically the issues identified at West Bromwich were not identified in the reports. He insisted all appropriate preventative measures should be taken to avoid any potential future issues across all sites.”
A spokesperson for 2 Sisters Food Group said: “ITV and the Guardian are referring to standard inspection audits and appear to be trying to damage the reputation of our factories and potentially the livelihoods of 23,000 colleagues by misrepresenting them. There is and never was any risk to food safety at Coupar Angus. This is using old news to highlight issues which were resolved with our customer two months ago.”
Lidl and Marks & Spencer said the factory was currently running to their standards. M&S said it had “last audited the site in November and Food Standards Scotland has a full-time presence at the site supporting the 2 Sisters management team”.
Aldi said it had found no labelling or traceability issues at Coupar Angus, while Co-op said it had unearthed no food safety breaches.
Iceland said it had not inspected the site itself for almost 23 months. Sainsbury’s said it would always investigate quality and safety concerns, while Asda did not comment.