Food safety checks to be increased at Scottish chicken plant

Surprise food safety inspections are to be stepped up at a Scottish slaughterhouse following a scandal in England, a government watchdog has said.

Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has told The Ferret that it will increase unannounced checks on an abattoir in Coupar Angus run by the chicken firm 2 Sisters “as a precautionary measure”. It will also review “available” CCTV footage.

An undercover investigation by the Guardian and ITV News revealed that workers at a 2 Sisters’ factory in West Bromwich were routinely breaching food safety rules.  This included fiddling the slaughter date of poultry to extend its “best before” and “use by” dates.

The revelations prompted an inquiry by House of Commons Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee (Efra). In a report on 16 November the committee urged food safety agencies to “tighten” their procedures.

FSS stressed that it had seen no evidence of any similar breaches at 2 Sisters’ Coupar Angus plant. But it promised to respond to what had been uncovered in West Bromwich.

“Following the staff and stock issues identified at the 2 Sisters Plant in England, we will increase the level of our unannounced inspections programme in Scotland as a precautionary measure,” said FSS director of operations, Ian McWatt.

“We have also increased the level of reality checks in red meat, poultry and game cutting plants that are associated with slaughterhouses and game handling businesses.”

The checks would assess whether the day to day running of the business meets the standards required, he said. “Where CCTV footage is available at the plant, we will review the footage along with the food business.”

McWatt insisted that FSS would act if necessary. “If evidence shows controls are not satisfactory, we will – and do – take action,” he stated. “It’s paramount that our food industry is producing food that’s safe to eat.”

He added: “We last audited the Coupar Angus 2 Sisters premises in July this year and this audit showed that the plant had adequate controls in place to ensure that the poultry is being processed safely and is correctly labelled for the food chain.”

The Ferret revealed in October that 2 Sisters – Scotland’s largest intensive farmer – has breached environmental regulations on numerous occasions, whilst receiving more than half a million pounds from taxpayers.

The latest breach involved a “vile” stench from its Coupar Angus factory, which had plagued the town’s residents for years. A recent spike in complaints saw the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency order 2 Sisters to take action.

In April, The Ferret and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism also identified the Coupar Angus abattoir as one of seven Scottish slaughterhouses that had committed animal welfare breaches, according to separate audits carried out by FSS in 2016.

The Guardian’s investigation in September revealed that chickens slaughtered on different dates at the West Bromwich plant were mixed up. Chicken dropped on the floor was returned to the production line.

Meat rejected by some supermarket distribution centres was repackaged by 2 Sisters before being supplied to different retailers. Workers were also found to be doctoring records of slaughter locations, which could stop authorities from recalling and sourcing contaminated meat.

The Efra report recommended that the scandal should act as a “wake-up call” for  food regulators. It called for the greater sharing of data and intelligence sharing between watchdogs.

“We trust that all accreditation firms, not just those who appeared before us, will use this incident as a wake-up call to tighten their processes and remove some of the more obvious loopholes,” the report said.

“We further trust that the confidentiality issues which apparently prevent the systematic sharing of data and intelligence can be worked around so that a single unified record of standards and hygiene practices can be kept to better identify failings.”

In a letter to Efra on 10 November, 2 Sisters CEO, Ranjit Singh Boparan, promised to allow a full time food inspector to be placed in all poultry plants. He also said he would install CCTV with complete coverage in all poultry plants within 120 days.

But a Scottish animal welfare organisation has argued that it is “virtually impossible” to ensure that animals are treated properly in intensive poultry farming. Edinburgh-based OneKind pointed to 2 Sisters’ history of poor hygiene and animal welfare standards in Scotland.

“It is worrying but not surprising that Efra concluded the problems found at the 2 Sisters West Bromwich plant were not unique and that the past record of the group was far from pristine”, said OneKind’s policy advisor, Libby Anderson.

“In Scotland, not only has this company been subject to a catalogue of complaints about hygiene, but an official audit of the Coupar Angus plant identified a major non-compliance with regard to animal welfare.”

She added: “The truth is that the intensive nature of poultry breeding, rearing and slaughter make it virtually impossible to safeguard the welfare of the sentient individual. This is not farming as we like to imagine it, but an intensive, industrial process using living creatures as a commodity.”

A spokesman for 2 Sisters said: “A single case of historic non-compliance on birds held before slaughter was highlighted, which was picked up on FSS review of our own welfare officer’s records. Due to machinery breakdown, birds were housed in our holding area overnight, as agreed by veterinary staff.

“They were monitored by welfare officers throughout, before proceeding to slaughter at 6am. This is technically measured as a non-compliance, but does not require any further action, and illustrates the depth and transparency of the FSS audit process.”

Commenting on increased FSS checks following the inquiry, the spokesperson said: “We produce quality and safe products and all our facilities across the UK are subject to rigorous audit from regulators. This is also the case in Scotland, and we welcome the additional quality checks from bodies like the FSS.”

This story was updated at 11.21 am and 11.46 am on the 30 November 2017 after 2 Sisters provided a comment.

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