A major 2 Sisters cutting plant closed its doors for “staff retraining” at a cost of up to £500,000 a week in September, after undercover filming purported to show poor food safety standards.
While 2 Sisters insists it has found no evidence of regulatory breaches at the West Bromwich site in question, it said it had uncovered sufficient examples of “non-compliance” with internal quality control measures to close its doors to review standards.
In any case, the supermarkets served by the site unanimously suspended supply while their own investigations took place.
A reporter for the Guardian and ITV worked undercover at 2 Sisters over the summer and surreptitiously filmed a number of potential breaches in food safety standards. The film suggested kill dates were extended and old and fresh poultry meat was mixed – including returned produce being repackaged for different supermarkets. Much of the video evidence was backed up with witness statements, according to the report.
The footage also shows chicken falling to the floor and being placed back on production lines, echoing a similar film taken by the Guardian in 2014.
Lewis: Tesco won’t drop Willow Farms
It was suggested in the footage that chicken packaged as “exclusive to Tesco” and using controversial “Willow Farms” branding was in fact repackaged Lidl poultry, something for which the supermarket apologised. Despite this, Tesco chief executive, Dave Lewis, said it will continue to market poultry and other meat under the branding. Farm leaders have criticised the practice of selling produce – not always from the UK – under generic farm branding. But retailers consider it a highly effective marketing tool for own-label produce and have repeatedly rejected calls for more “honest” promotions.
On 28 September the film was broadcast on ITV’s flagship news programme, and extensive coverage appeared in the Guardian the following day.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said it launched an immediate inspection in light of the footage, but found no breaches. The site was subject to nine audits over the period that filming took place, and passed each time.
3 days after the story broke, 2 Sisters said it had found “isolated instances” of non-compliance and would close the site to retrain staff, who would remain on full pay.
Later that week the Guardian reported details from a call with 2 Sisters’ investors, in which the company reportedly said the closure would cost up to £500,000 a week. It reiterated that issues surrounding food hygiene had been identified, rather than breaches of food safety regulations.
The West Bromwich site operates, as 2 Sisters says, “in one of the most tightly-controlled and highly regulated food sectors in the world”. In addition to the FSA, both Red Tractor and the BRC Global Standard suspended their accreditation of the site pending their own inspections. As Poultry World went to press, the plant remained closed, but it was expected that 2 Sisters would respond to the specific allegations made by the Guardian/ITV investigation imminently.