UK launches nationwide review of meat processing plants

The UK’s food regulators are launching nationwide review of all meat cutting plants in the wake of “serious incidents” at 2 Sisters Food Group and Russell Hume.

The announcement comes days after the Food Standards Agency was criticised by a committee of MPs for failing to take “definite action” to improve food standards following a Guardian and ITV undercover investigation last year.

The report prompted 2 Sisters, the country’s largest supplier of supermarket chicken, to shut its West Bromwich chicken site for five weeks last autumn for staff retraining.

Last month, Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant chain and Wetherspoon pubs were among businesses caught up in a meat recall scandal at supplier Russell Hume, when FSA inspectors said they had found “serious non-compliance with food hygiene regulations” during a surprise visit to the company’s Birmingham premises on 12 January. Meat production has been suspended at Russell Hume plants.

In a joint statement by Heather Hancock and Ross Finnie, respectively chairs of the FSA and Food Standards Scotland, the regulators said: “In the last six months the FSA and FSS have faced two serious incidents involving major players in the meat sector. People rightly expect food businesses to keep to the rules, rules designed to keep consumers safe and to sustain public trust in food – and food businesses have a duty to follow the regulations.

“In the light of these recent incidents, the FSA and FSS will be taking forward reviews of cutting plants and cold stores used for meat. Further details will be published later this month and the results will be fully available to the public.”

An investigation into meat processing factories was expected at some point in the future, but the scale of the problems that have emerged since September have prompted the regulators to expedite the launch.

Last year’s hearings into 2 Sisters by parliament’s environment, food and rural affairs (Efra) committee were a direct response to the Guardian and ITV undercover footage from 2 Sister’s West Bromwich chicken plant, which showed poultry being dropped on the floor and returned to the production line, as well as an instance of labels recording the slaughter dates of birds being changed.

The chicken processor has denied the footage at that factory showed any food safety breaches and said it temporarily suspended production at the factory three days later because of process failures, adding that its “internal investigation has shown some isolated instances of non-compliance with our own quality management systems”.

The FSA said its investigation into Russell Hume includes examining the “extended use of ‘use by’ dates, and the food safety management system that the business has in place”. The regulator has also launched its own investigation into 2 Sisters, which is ongoing.

Jason Feeney, chief executive of the FSA said: “Our investigation into the major non-compliances we found at the Russell Hume plants in England and Scotland is intensifying. We have already stopped these plants producing meat products, have ensured the withdrawal and disposal of the products and now we are looking at the root cause of the incident and any culpability.

“It remains the case that there is no indication that people have become ill from eating meat supplied by Russell Hume and we continue to assess the situation working with the relevant public health bodies.”

Since the Guardian and ITV’s undercover investigation, the government has pledged to require CCTV top be installed in all meat cutting plants.

A spokesman for 2 Sisters said: “We welcome any further reviews the FSA would wish to carry out at all cutting facilities in the UK.”

Russell Hume did not respond to invitations to comment.