Police in Derbyshire seized poultry carcasses weighing more than two tonnes yesterday; the result of a long-running investigation into pet food operations that are allegedly sending condemned poultry to be sold for human consumption.

The meat was seized from Ripley-based Denby Poultry Products, an operation registered under the Animal By-products Order (1999) to receive poultry slaughterhouse waste for the purpose of manufacturing pet food. Police could not confirm however how long the company had been passing on the condemned meat to consumers and a spokesman added: "These are still only allegations."

Detective Superintendent Fran Muldoon, who headed the investigation into Denby Poultry, revealed that "Yesterday's actions were the culmination of four months of observations. The arrests made do not mean the operation is complete. This is the initial stage."

Indeed, the police action in Derby was part of an investigation that spreads across England. Environmental health officers and police officers from five forces were issued with 20 search warrants yesterday, and the coordinated operation involved plants in Derbyshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. It culminated in the seizure of paperwork and computers to use as evidence of foul play, and 16 arrests.

Police have revealed that seven of those arrests were made in the Derbyshire area.

While the investigation is continuing, "Maff [the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food] has exercised their statutory powers to suspend the [Denby Poultry] plant's registration," added Peter Carney, CEO of Amber Valley council, which was also involved in the police operation.

"The seized carcasses will be examined and destroyed if they are found to be unsafe," he added.

The arrests are stirring much consumer anxiety as to food safety, and consumer groups have expressed concern that the Derbyshire case could provoke public outrage. A Consumers Association spokeswoman has commented: "We welcome this joint initiative to stop further potentially contaminated chicken getting back into the human food chain. But how much has already been eaten? […] consumers must be kept informed."

The news can only lead to further uncertainties following the report in Which? magazine last month about unacceptable levels of salmonella or campylobacter bacteria in supermarket chicken products.

At the Food Standards Agency, director of enforcement and food standards David Statham attempted to reassure the public: "There are specific controls on meat to ensure it is fit for human consumption. Yesterday's actions to apply to seize the meat will protect the public from any further risks of this meat entering the food chain."
The agency admitted however that it cannot accurately quantify the level of public health risk. Furthermore, the extent of the legal loopholes has been graphically shown. The worry now is that the warning of Rotherham environmental health officer Lewis Coates, who headed a similar investigation into Wells By-Products last December, will turn out to be a prophesy. Coates commented that there was evidence to suggest that the country was riddled with similar scams.

To read about the Rotherham case last December, click here.

To read about the Which? magazine report into unacceptable levels of food poisoning bacteria in chicken, click here.

By Clare Harman, just-food.com editorial team