Several major supermarkets cancelled order with 2 Sisters in September after a joint investigation from undercover reporters at The Guardian and ITN exposed poor hygiene practices and breaches of food safety legislation.

Among these allegations, workers at a West Bromwich plant were found to be altering the slaughter date of poultry by extending its “best before” and “use by dates”, while chicken portions returned by supermarket distribution centres were said to be repackaged and sent out again to other major retailers.

The allegations have posed big questions for the wider food industry, given that 2 Sisters processes around one-third of the poultry produced in the UK.

‘Remove loopholes’

MPs have today (17 November) poured scorn on the performance of regulatory bodies which audit food processing facilities. A report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (Efra) notes that the food safety inspection regime, headed up by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), makes it easy to “hide infractions”.

It highlights a “lack of joined up and intelligence-sharing” among bodies, due to the absence of a systematic process for bringing together the various audits by different accreditation schemes.

Efra is calling for bodies to pool intelligence to better identify failings, and for the installation of CCTV to act as a permanent inspector of practices in processing facilities.

“Our inquiry should serve as a wakeup call for all accreditation firms and cause them to improve their processes and remove any loopholes that may exist, not just those discovered through our inquiry,” Efra Chair Neil Parish said.

‘Confidentiality issues’

One evidence witness from BRC Global Standards, which accredited the West Bromwich plant, told MPs “there are probably confidentiality issues [about the sharing of audit data]”.

MPs also heard that, despite its size and importance to the food chain, the West Bromwich plant, alongside three other 2 Sisters facilities, was able to opt-out of unannounced accreditation audits.

According to evidence, the problems identified at the 2 Sisters plant are not a one-off. The past record of the group is “far from pristine”, MPs claim, a factor which has heightened concern at the “apparent laxity of the oversight” of the West Bromwich facilities.

The Assured Food Standards, which accredits the West Bromwich plant, has pledged to increase frequency of unannounced visits across the whole of the 2 Sisters estate. This is just one of the steps necessary to re-establish consumer confidence in the supply chain, MPs said.

Parish added. “Food supply chains are sensitive and easy to disrupt when retailers and consumers lose confidence in food quality or safety. Large producers and retailers have a responsibility to protect, rather than undermine, the UK’s food producers.”

George Ogleby

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