7.Our inquiry had two main objectives. We were keen to investigate both how the FSA received intelligence about practices in major food processing facilities — how, for example, the FSA interacted with the major accreditation bodies and drew on their findings — and what steps were being taken in response to the recent allegations made in the media against the 2 Sisters plant in West Bromwich. By investigating the particular issues around that plant in West Bromwich, we sought to highlight lessons applicable throughout the sector and make public the changes in process being made to restore consumer confidence.
8.We began our evidence gathering by hearing from the trade bodies and accreditation companies who aim to ensure that standards are maintained across the industry and throughout the food chain. These are private sector companies, rather than public sector organisations, but our expectation was that they would play an intelligence-gathering and knowledge-sharing role on behalf of the Food Standards Agency, as well as acting as a further guarantor of standards. Our assumption was that they would and could act as the “eyes and ears” of the FSA.
9.We took evidence from the British Poultry Council, the trade association of the UK poultry industry. We also heard from Assured Food Standards (often known as “Red Tractor”) and BRC Global Standards. Both companies run quality assurance schemes. Food suppliers and processors who wish to be accredited with these firms must pass regular audits of their performance against certain centrally-mandated standards. These standards govern the quality of applicants’ processes and hygiene practices, for example on the storing of meat or cleaning of appliances.
10.Both Red Tractor and BRC Global Standards had accredited the 2 Sisters plant in West Bromwich. We wished to explore whether the picture painted by the released footage was an accurate representation of the plant and, if it was, how this had not been noted during the accreditation process; we were further interested in the degree to which the findings of such firms were automatically shared with the FSA as part of that body’s intelligence-gathering process.
11.The transcript the session is published with this report but we present the key points of what we heard below as indicative of our session and the somewhat patchwork nature of both the food accreditation system and such firms interaction with the Food Standards Agency:
12.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. 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.
13.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. We further trust that the confidentiality issues which apparently prevent the systematic sharing of data and intelligence can be worked around so that a single unified record of standards and hygiene practices can be kept to better identify failings. We recommend that the FSA takes steps in this direction and works with food accreditation companies towards a solution, and updates us on its progress within six months of publication of this report.
14.Hearing from our first panel highlighted several areas of inquiry to pursue with the FSA and the relevant local authority, in this case Sandwell Metropolitan Council. We were especially concerned with the degree to which different auditing bodies kept the results of their investigations to themselves and to inquire how their processes and audits had not found safety violations where an undercover journalist apparently had.
15.Enforcement of food safety regulation is broadly split between the FSA and the relevant local authority. The FSA is responsible for food authenticity, food fraud and the traceability aspects of food regulation, while the local authority is responsible for labelling, food hygiene and the veracity of the claims made of the product.
16.As before, the full transcript of our session is published with this report, but our key findings from this panel are presented below:
17.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 Site D facility, an incredibly important part of the poultry food chain. Any risk management assessment which did not give this plant the highest priority and the most stringent levels of scrutiny is flawed. The Food Standards Agency’s investigation into the case must examine the quality of its risk assessment to take better account both of its management’s history and the facility’s role in the food chain and the number of farmers and suppliers who rely on it.
18.During our inquiry we heard concrete suggestions for reform which we consider necessary to re-establish consumer confidence in the food chain. The value of CCTV in cutting plants to act as a permanent inspector of practices was repeatedly mentioned. We are aware that CCTV is planned to be made compulsory in slaughterhouses. We recommend that Defra both launch a consultation on extending these measures to cutting plants and produce an impact assessment of the likely costs and benefits to the industry of introducing such measures.
19.The Food Standards Agency Food Crime Unit was initially established as an intelligence-gathering unit. The FSA is keen to upgrade its role to include an investigatory function. We are concerned at the suggestion from the FSA that the funding necessary to complete this upgrade has not been immediately forthcoming from the Treasury and is instead seemingly stuck in limbo. We would like to assume that this recent incident, and our subsequent inquiry, has provided the impetus for the necessary funding to be made available. We recommend that Defra and the FSA confirm to us in response to this Report that this is the case and the required funds have been released.
20.We concluded our evidence-gathering by hearing from the 2 Sisters Food Group, the owners of the West Bromwich plant. We wanted to explore their relationship with the FSA and the local authority both before and after the media stories about the plant were published, and to hear from them the steps they were taking to restore consumer and retailer confidence in their product.
21.It is the role of the FSA to assess the veracity of the allegations made against the 2 Sisters plant in West Bromwich. 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. Instead, this section of our Report focuses on the steps to be taken by 2 Sisters to prevent a re-occurrence of such incidents in future.
22.Ranjit Singh Boparan, the Chief Executive of the 2 Sisters Food Group, told us of his actions in immediate response to the allegations made against his plant, as well as his medium, and longer-term ambitions to re-establish consumer and retailer confidence in his product. These measures include:
In short, according to Mr Boparan, “anything that brings confidence to the consumer, we will do”.
23.In our evidence session we asked Mr Boparan whether the promises made to us had yet translated into increased confidence from the big retailers about the safety of his products. As of 25 October, that had not been the case and retailers were not buying product from the West Bromwich plant; each retailer seemed to be in the position of waiting for the others to make the first move. Other plants in the 2 Sisters Group were attempting to meet some of the orders but there remained a shortfall between what was requested by the retailers and what could be supplied by 2 Sisters and, as a result, ultimately what could be bought from farmers and producers.
24.On 10 November, Mr Boparan wrote to us with an update on the commitments he had made in our session on 25 October. In that letter he confirmed that:
25.The modern food supply chain is incredibly fragile and sensitive. A failure in a single section of the chain can have catastrophic effects on hundreds of small suppliers and farmers. As well as the personal cost to Mr Boparan of the temporary suspension of Site D, many others have lost out from the failings highlighted in his plant. In that context we were pleased to hear of the short and medium-term steps he is taking to prevent a re-occurrence and future stoppages in his plant. We request that Mr Boparan continues to update us on his progress in both installing these new measures and on re-establishing his supplier relationship with the main retailers.
4 Q4 [Jim Moseley], Q17 [David Brackston]
6 Q34 [Sue Lockhart]
8 Q87–88 [David Brackston], Q99 [Mark Proctor]
9 Q79 [Mark Proctor] and Q104 [Jim Mosley]
10 See Q91 [Richard Griffiths]
11 Q188 [Jan Britton]. However, responsibility for hygiene in meat packing plants such as that at Site D is the responsibility of the FSA.
12 Q108–109 [Jason Feeney]
13 Q157 [Jose Gomez-Luengo]
14 Q123 and Q149
15 Q114 and Q116
16 Q136 and Q141
23 In the week beginning 6 November production restarted at the 2 Sisters plant. Tesco, Marks and Spencer and Aldi all announced the resumption of their supply deals at this time.
16 November 2017