The scale of food safety and hygiene problems in meat plants around much of the UK is revealed by new analysis showing more than half of all audited plants have had at least one “major” breach in the last three years.
Inspection figures from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) reveal there were on average 16 major plant safety infractions every week between 2014-2017, according to a data analysis conducted this week by the Guardian and Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
Almost two thirds of audited meat cutting factories (540 out of 890) in England, Wales and Northern Ireland had at least one instance of major non-compliance with hygiene or food safety regulations. Several plants had multiple failures, with 25 breaches occurring at plants belonging to Russell Hume, the meat supplier at the centre of recent concerns about UK food hygiene. Scotland has a separate regulator.
A major non-compliance is, by the FSA’s definition, “likely to compromise public health, including food safety … or may lead to the production and handling of unsafe or unsuitable food if no remedial action is taken”.
Among the overall number of failings identified by FSA auditors in the period analysed, there were 221 major non-compliances relating to maintaining legal temperature controls, and in excess of 300 relating to minimising the risk of cross-contamination. In addition, more than 50 major breaches were discovered relating to ensuring that animal byproducts are correctly identified, and 26 connected to traceability.
Cross-contamination occurs when bacteria or other contaminants are spread between food, surfaces and equipment, and is one of the most common causes of food poisoning, according to the FSA. Traceability is a legal requirement for food business operators to keep records of food and food-producing animals supplied to their business, and the businesses that they have, in turn, supplied.
Breaches found at the Russell Hume meat plants related to multiple aspects of production, including maintaining legal temperature controls, preventing cross-contamination, ensuring environmental hygiene and management of food safety systems.
The findings “raise serious questions as to how robust the FSA’s system for monitoring food hygiene really is”, said Kerry McCarthy MP, who served as shadow secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs until 2016.
“These figures are truly shocking,” Kath Dalmeny, CEO of campaign group Sustain, told the Guardian. “That is why I find it so dismaying that over the last decade our government has slashed the budgets for the bodies who police our food system – our local authority meat hygiene services, independent public analyst laboratories and trading standards inspectors. They doggedly insist on pursuing the flawed notion that light-touch regulation is good enough for the meat industry.”
Ron Spellman, a meat inspector with 30 years’ experience and deputy secretary general of the European Association of Food and Meat Inspectors (EWFC), said: “What I also find worrying is the attitude of the company I’ve read today, in which they blame the FSA’s handling of the issue for the collapse of the company. There seems to be no willingness to accept responsibility.”
But Prof Hugh Pennington, a renowned expert in bacteriology, pointed out that “Widespread breaches [are] obviously a bad thing, but their detection shows that the regulatory system seems to be working. In the past, outbreaks occurred because the regulators were missing the breaches.”
And an FSA spokesperson said: “We carry out thousands of audits and unannounced inspections of meat plants each year to verify that food hygiene standards are being met. Issues that may pose imminent or serious risk to public health will result in immediate and robust enforcement action being taken.
“Only 2% of plants were found to have more than two major non-compliances. Each audit assesses almost 50 different hygiene criteria and a single issue can result in multiple major and minor non compliances being recorded. Issues of major and minor non-compliance detected through our audits do not necessarily mean that a food business will receive an overall negative outcome. However, it does mean the frequency of audits and unannounced inspections at sites will increase to ensure the issues raised are being addressed.”
When asked what action the FSA had taken in relation to these earlier Russell Hume non-compliances, the spokesman said: “Our published audit data shows that we found hygiene issues at Russell Hume sites not related to those which we are currently investigating. As a result, the FSA carried out increased audits at the affected sites.”
In a statement, the former directors of Russell Hume Ltd said: “Between 2014-2017 the FSA carried out a number of routine inspections and audits of Russell Hume’s six branches. The audit system is specifically designed to highlight areas for improvement, and inevitably there were a small number of recommendations over this period that required action. But these averaged around one a year per branch, and taken together and in the context of industry practice as a whole, the audit results were positive for Russell Hume. The company has never been prosecuted for food safety or hygiene offences, and saw no FSA enforcement action taken against it over this period.”
There is growing anxiety that the problems in the industry may be wider than initially thought. Four different companies have now withdrawn meat, and the FSA has also set up a national review of meat processing plants. This week the agency met with meat industry heads to discuss the situation, for a discussion that was apparently “constructive and engaging”.
In the House of Commons yesterday shadow secretary of state Barry Gardiner asked Liam Fox, secretary of state for international trade, whether he was aware that the FSA had recently detained large quantities of out of date meat in a cold store company. Gardiner said the meat was believed to come from Ireland and South America and that one of the companies he named had been implicated in the Irish horsemeat scandal of 2013 and had previously been found guilty of meat labelling fraud. He asked that the secretary of state “urgently liaise with ministers in the Republic, with the FSA here and with the Irish Food Safety Authority” to look at the supply chain.
“Failure on this scale can’t be attributed to just a few rogue businesses falling through the cracks,” said McCarthy. “Consumers need to have confidence in the system and need to know that action is being taken against companies with incidents of major non-compliance.”
By Andrew Wasley
Source: The Guardian
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