The recent spate of food safety infractions in UK meat and poultry production was followed by the publication late on Friday of further worrying revelations in The Guardian newspaper. Ben Cooper assesses the implications of this succession of incidents and reports for the UK meat sector, its regulators and the food manufacturers that depend on them both.

The publication in The Guardian newspaper this weekend of further revelations regarding the safety of UK meat production has heaped yet more pressure on an already beleaguered sector.

The investigation, conducted jointly with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) and published by The Guardian on Friday (23 February), revealed there had been on average 16 major safety infractions per week at meat plants in England, Wales and Northern Ireland between 2014 and 2017, while 540 out of 890 meat-cutting facilities had had at least one recorded breach of safety or hygiene regulations.

These are troubling times for UK meat producers and by extension the food manufacturers, retailers and foodservice operators they supply. As it seeks to project an image of quality and integrity amid the uncertainty of Brexit, the UK food industry has faced a succession of worrying incidents, most notably at meat supplier 2 Sisters Food Group and meat processor Russell Hume, which threaten to damage its international standing while seriously undermining consumer confidence at home.

Regulatory failure or success?

As unwelcome as the media coverage these cases have attracted may be, the question at such times is whether it indicates regulatory failure or effectiveness.

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The current furore has thankfully not been prompted by a mass outbreak of any foodborne illness. If a food scare comes to light once even one person has been taken ill it is by definition too late and by any objective judgment it must be conceded the industry and its regulators have failed in their responsibility to keep the public safe. 

Uncovering poor practices or malfeasance before a contamination or outbreak of illness has been caused, however, could be seen as regulation working effectively. The more that is uncovered the more effective the regulation could be said to be, even if a high volume of even minor incidents does not cast the operators in the best light.

The level of what is an acceptable volume of incidents is to a degree a matter of opinion. For the UK meat industry, it is perhaps what their customers and consumers deem acceptable that is arguably most important.

While UK food and farming pressure group Sustain describes The Guardian/BIJ findings as “truly shocking”, the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) stresses only 2% of plants were found to have more than two major non-compliances over the last year and the majority had none at all.

Norman Bagley, head of policy at the UK’s Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, sees the findings as confirming the effectiveness of regulation. “We are confident in FSA data which states there are only 2% of plants with more than two major non-compliances, which is extremely low in the light of the low risk represented by raw meat,” Bagley says.  

An FSA spokesperson also explains a plant could be found to have one major non-compliance in an audit but still have an overall audit outcome as “generally satisfactory”. Also, while conceding the figures quoted are correct, the spokesperson says using the three-year period and counting every non-compliance, even though a company might have such a non-compliance lifted within a few days, made the figures “somewhat misleading” and appear “a bit more dramatic” than was really the case.

Mike Williams, a director of the food safety consultancy UK-based STS Solutions, says he is not surprised at the number of incidents noted in The Guardian/BIJ investigation. 

“I am not completely surprised as any food operator may make mistakes or have gaps in their system on any given day,” Williams tells just-food. “This is the beauty of unannounced inspections. This though does not mean that food businesses always operate to sub-standards all of the time. The lack of significant prosecutions also shows that the FSA are not seeing problems so bad that they need to take formal actions. Recent events at Russell Hume do show that some operators are still not placing food hygiene and safety as their absolute priority. However, the fact that these contraventions are being identified shows that inspections work.” 

Nevertheless, Williams adds the caveat the reduction in inspector numbers in general across the FSA and in Environmental Health Officers has “generated a need for lighter touch regulation”.

Maximising resources

Campaigners are concerned cuts in public spending in the UK have reduced resources allocated to functions such as unannounced routine inspections, undermining food safety. 

We shouldn’t be relying on luck. We should be relying on decent services looking after what we eat

Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of Sustain, says food safety regulation in the UK has to be viewed in the context of the Government’s “propensity” to deregulate and cut public services. Environmental health and trading standards services have been “cut back immensely” in recent years, Dalmeny claims, adding it is “lucky” there haven’t been any serious outbreaks of food poisoning. “We shouldn’t be relying on luck. We should be relying on decent services looking after what we eat.” 

Suggestions the problems at Russell Hume would not have been uncovered by routine measures and were only revealed because of a whistleblower are unequivocally refuted by the FSA.  

However, the FSA spokesperson says the publicity around the Russell Hume case did lead to “increased intelligence”.

“Following Russell Hume, we have experienced increased intelligence, and therefore a few of our random inspections have not been as random. They’ve been acting on intelligence and therefore subsequent incidents, such as Fairfax Meadow, have been based on increased intelligence following Russell Hume. They’ve not been reliant on intelligence or whistleblowing.”

This speaks to a critical point about the relationship between regulation and self-regulation in food safety. 

David Lindars, head of policy at the British Meat Producers Association (BMPA), believes as resources are finite the regulatory focus should be “intelligence-led” and focus on identifying the bad apples. “Leave the 90% or 95% alone because they’ve got a history of doing it well, and focus on the minority, intelligence-led, and shut them down. That would be my advice.”

That opens up the question of how the activities of an official statutory regulator like the FSA interacts with the private-sector audit system. 

The issue forms part of the FSA’s Regulating our Future vision for the future of food safety regulation in the UK, published last July. How the activities of private-sector auditors can be integrated effectively with the responsibilities of the regulator and the inspection regime is one of the over-arching issues food scares, such as have been seen in UK meat in recent months, are bound to raise. 

The current situation is reminiscent of the “Horsegate” horsemeat scandal which hit the UK in 2013. Then, too, there had been no mass contamination or illness but an unfolding litany of revelations led to the integrity of meat production in the UK and the effectiveness of its regulation being questioned. 

Meat is the common denominator not least because it is a high-value food where the rewards of playing fast and loose with regulation, whether in extending use-by dates or the wholesale fraud uncovered during the Horsegate scandal, are considerable. “There’s a lot of money at stake,” Dalmeny says. “I don’t like soundbites but I can’t help thinking ‘where there’s meat there’s cheats’. It’s just such a high-value product, the temptation to cheat is always there.”

A key outcome from the Horsegate scandal was the creation of a Food Crime Unit in the UK, which now has an important role in the intelligence-led enforcement to which Lindars refers.

The man the UK government chose to lead its inquiry into the horsemeat scandal, Professor Chris Elliott of Queen’s University, Belfast, has voiced concerns about the fitness for purpose of the country’s current regulatory regime in the wake of the recent revelations.

In spite of the FSA’s apparent insistence on the question, Prof. Elliott still believes the intervention of a whistleblower was required to bring serious issues at Russell Hume to light. Overall, he believes recent events leave the regulator with questions to answer.

“As often with food scandals we are left with more questions than answers,” Prof. Elliott tells just-food. “Perhaps as much information becomes available, particularly about Russell Hume, these will be answered. From my perspective I’d be keen to know why a whistleblower was needed to flag up serious issues which subsequently led to unannounced inspections by the FSA. And, of course, what did they really find that caused the need to shut down production at a number of plants across the country.” 

However, Prof. Elliott also praises the FSA for the action it has taken. “The FSA has shown it has teeth and will take action to protect us the consumer, good news I believe. However, how many other issues are lurking in the UK food system that the current system of audits are missing?”

The questions raised do not just relate to the specifics of how food safety functions are managed. The incidents in recent weeks clearly speak to some significant over-arching issues that are all currently the subject of wider debate, such as the uncertainty created by Brexit, the funding of public services during the period of austerity over the last decade, deregulation and contracting out public service functions to private-sector operators.