The contamination of a batch of Worcester sauce with the banned dye Sudan I has led to the UK’s biggest food recall. More than 400 food products from major manufacturers and retailers have been recalled. But what will the implications be for the food industry? And what is being done to prevent a similar occurrence? Kate Barker finds out.

The UK’s biggest food recall was launched last Friday after a banned dye, Sudan I, ended up in a batch of Worcester sauce. The UK’s Food Standards Agency recalled more than 350 food products thought to be contaminated with the cancer-causing substance, although the list has since been added to and currently stands at around 420. Some of the big names involved in the recall include Unilever, Heinz, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons and McDonald’s.

Sudan I is a red dye that is used for colouring solvents, oils, waxes, petrol, and shoe and floor polishes. It is banned from use as a food additive in the EU, and all chilli powder entering the UK has to be certified free of the dye. However, the dye somehow ended up in a batch of chilli powder used by Premier Foods to make a Worcester sauce. It is thought the chilli may have been imported into the UK before the regulations came into place in 2003. Premier Foods’ Worcester sauce was then used as an ingredient in a variety of products ranging from vegetable soup to sausages, and from shepherds pie to pizza. All the major retailers were affected, as were many major food manufacturers and foodservice companies.

The recall affected such a wide range of foods and the products were so widely distributed that some contaminated products still remained on the shelves of some smaller grocers several days after the recall. Companies have until today [Thursday] to remove products from shelves.

So just how big a risk does this contamination represent? Because of the lack of information about the dye, the FSA said it is not possible to identify a safe level or to quantify the risk. However, at the levels present in the recalled food products the risk is likely to be very small. The dye has been shown to cause cancer in tests on animals, but its affect on humans is not precisely known.

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Minimal risk?

In the initial recall, FSA chief executive Dr Jon Bell said the dye could contribute to an increased risk of cancer: “However, at the levels present the risk is likely to be very small but it is sensible to avoid eating any more. There is no risk of immediate ill health.”

The FSA and local authorities randomly sample more than 1,000 consignments a year of imported chilli products; however, this batch predates this sampling programme and was uncovered after Worcester sauce produced by Premier Foods and exported to Italy was tested there.

According to the Guardian newspaper, the contamination was discovered by a laboratory in Italy on 28 January. Premier Foods informed the FSA on 7 February, according to the newspaper, but it was not until 18 February that the public was told of the recall. Supermarkets are believed to have received information a few days before the public.

Taking the matter seriously

Kate Snowden, from the UK’s Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents the industry, said Premier Foods had sought risk-based advice from the FSA, which decided to gather as much information as possible before going public. She told just-food that the FDF refutes any suggestions that the food industry has been dragging its feet, and added that Premier Foods has been working very hard to resolve the situation.

Snowden said it was difficult to assess the implications for the food industry at the moment as it is in the midst of such a big operation, with such a large number of brands affected. The industry will look back once the crisis is over and assess the implications in terms of cost and reputation.

A spokeswoman for Premier Foods declined to elaborate on a prepared statement that said the company is “taking the matter incredibly seriously and investigating all factors, but providing no further comment at this time”.

No extra measures needed

As for consumer confidence, UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s said it was difficult to tell how the recall would affect people’s trust in packaged foods. A spokeswoman told just-food that the retailer was able to remove all the affected goods from shelves within a couple of hours of being notified. She added that the company’s main priority has been customer safety and making sure that its employees were kept informed in order to deal with customer queries. It has not yet examined the cost of the recall, but has been working closely with suppliers to reformulate products and get them back on shelf.

One of the many food manufacturers inadvertently caught up in the food scare was Canterbury Foods, which makes meat and pastry products for the foodservice industry. When the crisis emerged, the company checked the Worcester sauce that is used as an ingredient in some of its foods and discovered that it was not affected, Paul Ainsworth, chief executive of Canterbury Foods, told just-food. However, the company was then contacted by its flavour house, which said the contaminated Worcester sauce had been made into a dry flavour, which was then used in a spice mix in some of the company’s products.

Ainsworth said there was nothing more the company could have done to prevent such an occurrence. It has reviewed its food safety system, but is confident no extra measures are needed. It could not independently test for Sudan I as the dye was present in such small amounts in its products. Instead it relies on a written guarantee from suppliers. Therefore, the company hopes to pass on any financial losses to its suppliers, who will likely pass claims onto their suppliers.

Could traceability be the answer?

One way in which time and money could have been saved in this crisis is by increased traceability in the food chain, argues the Global Food Safety and Traceability Forum. A spokesman told just-food that the current traceability system does not allow companies to tell exactly which batches of food the contaminated ingredient went into, so they may have had to recall more products than was actually necessary.

Current EU law mandates that a company must be able to say where its ingredients came from and who its products were sold to – known as “one up, one down” traceability. However, the law does not require internal traceability, where ingredients are tracked within a company. The Forum argues that internal traceability should allow companies to provide more information on which specific products contained the contaminated ingredient. In Belgium the government has added to the EU traceability laws by making internal traceability mandatory too.

There is a risk that once the dust has settled no improvements to the current system will be made. The FSA has said current measures should prevent a recurrence: all dried and crushed or ground chilli coming into the EU must be accompanied by a certificate showing it has been tested and found to be free of Sudan I. Random sampling is also undertaken both at ports and by local authorities, and any consignments found to contain Sudan I must be destroyed. But whether manufacturers and consumers will be reassured by a system that allowed this contamination to happen in the first place remains to be seen.