Editor's viewpoint: Why whole sector should take heed of UK, China meat allegations
Poultry production in spotlight in UK and China
The meat supply chain is in the spotlight this week, with allegations in the UK and China of poor and potentially unsafe practices at firms supplying retail and foodservice giants including Tesco and McDonald's. The claims come with the entire food industry knowing consumer attention on the sector is arguably at the highest it has ever been.
At the start of the week, US-based meat supplier OSI Group found its Chinese business under the microscope. Local media reports claimed Shanghai Husi Food, a subsidiary of OSI, was selling beef and chicken past their expiry date to fast-food chains including McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut. There have also been reports the Chinese supplier's products may have been sold to customers in Japan.
Yesterday afternoon, The Guardian newspaper in the UK claimed two of the country's largest suppliers of own-label poultry were breaching hygiene regulations, prompting concerns about contamination with the campylobacter bacteria, which causes food poisoning.
In China, the fast-food chains have pulled products from their restaurants, while police in Shanghai said yesterday they had arrested five people as part of an investigation into Shanghai Husi Food.
A report from the Xinhua state news agency cited a local official working in the city's food safety watchdog who claimed Shanghai Husi's "illegal behaviour" was "an organised arrangement by the company", rather than down to individuals.
It is just the latest food scandal to hit the food industry in China, a country where consumer scrutiny of product safety and quality has grown with each new set of allegations. Overseas brands have stood to benefit but this time major multinationals have been affected, prompting swift public apologies from the likes of McDonald's, although the US giant is said to be keeping OSI as a supplier.
For its part, OSI has said the practices at its Chinese subsidiary are "completely unacceptable" and pointed out local authorities have found "no issues" at any of its other sites in the country.
In the last 24 hours, there have been fresh claims against OSI, this time about one of its plants in the US, according to The International Business Times.
In the UK, the two poultry suppliers - 2 Sisters Food Group and Faccenda Foods - at the centre of The Guardian's allegations today issued their reactions.
"The allegations about our processing sites at Scunthorpe and Llangefni ... concerning our business and our management of campylobacter are untrue, misleading and inaccurate," 2 Sisters said. "There is no campylobacter contamination or problems at our sites, as confirmed by multiple independent external audits and our own rigorous testing."
It added: "We strongly deny and defend ourselves against these allegations. We are doing more than any other business in addressing the key issues our sector is facing and we are leading the way in establishing and enforcing industry best practice.
"To date, we have only been given limited detail of the alleged evidence which The Guardian claims to possess. However, our detailed response answers as fully as we can at this stage the specific allegations made. We will be working to actively engage further with our stakeholders in the coming weeks in order to reassure them about our operations in the light of this inaccurate and misleading article."
Faccenda said: "We recognise the food safety challenge posed by campylobacter and the concerns of consumers in this area. Through our campylobacter action plan, Faccenda Foods continues to invest significantly across the whole supply chain to address this top priority issue.
"Our action plan has been proactively shared and acknowledged with the Food Standards Agency and our customers, focussing on three key areas – farm biosecurity, interventions in our factory operations and improved food safety in the kitchen."
According to The Guardian, the UK's Food Standards Agency decided against plans to publish data on processors and supermarkets for the camylobacter rates. The newspaper claimed representatives in industry and government had expressed concern about the data and expressed fears over public reaction.
Today, the FSA took to Twitter to say it would "publish full campylobacter results when we have a meaningful analysis". It said: "The FSA board agreed and we're working to deliver this sooner."
In further tweets, the agency said: "We're spearheading a campaign to bring together the whole food chain to tackle campylobacter." And then: "We're working hard to tackle campylobacter but always remember cooking chicken thoroughly kills food bugs."
The fact the FSA used Twitter as its outlet today underlines the interest consumers are taking in what they eat, where it comes from and how it is made - and how the rise of social media has fuelled and buttressed that interest.
Information (some would also point out misinformation) is at the fingertips of consumers, faster than ever, and they are turning to the internet to find out more about the food they eat.
These latest allegations in China and the UK will not see McDonald's have to close outlets in Shanghai as fast-food lovers boycott the chain. UK consumers will still buy poultry products for Sunday lunch or barbecues this weekend.
However, the claims will cause more consumers to think twice about the products they buy and from where they buy them. Stories like these do have an impact on shopper behaviour. Look at horsemeat: that was a question of ethics and quality over safety but the Italian ready meals category was hit badly here in the UK and sales growth remains weak.
Over in the US on Monday, Campbell Soup Co. president and CEO Denise Morrison told Wall Street analysts at the company's annual investor day several factors were changing the industry landscape - and one she highlighted was consumer interest in what they eat.
"Consumers are clearly demanding greater transparency about their food. They want to understand how it is grown, produced and marketed. They want to know what ingredients are used in their food and where those ingredients come from," Morrison said.
"More broadly, consumers are holding manufacturers more accountable. They want to know where we stand on public policy issues that they are concerned about and what we stand for. There is no doubt in my mind the way food companies respond to these new expectations and the way Campbell responds will have a lasting impact on consumers' purchasing behaviour and on their loyalty to our brands."
That accountability, of course, does not just rest with suppliers. According to The Guardian, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer have started investigations into their sources of poultry in the last week. Of course, some could argue retailer pressure has been a factor in a poultry supply chain apparently pushed to its limits.
But, above all, these retail giants, like their suppliers, know more consumers are watching with ever-increasing interest in where their food comes from.
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