Sources reveal measures being taken to clean up production, but company denies allegations of food safety failings. Felicity Lawrence and Andrew Wasley report
The chicken factories at the centre of revelations over food poisoning contamination were checked by Food Standards Agency inspectors on Friday, as sources reported that Tesco auditors had found failings during a surprise middle-of-the-night inspection at an abattoir in Wales.
This week’s Guardian investigation prompted emergency reviews by three of the UK’s leading supermarkets, and the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, intervened on Thursday to demand that the FSA investigate more thoroughly, just hours after the agency had said it was content that correct procedures had been followed.
Labour accused the government of presiding over a food scandal made possible because David Cameron had split responsibility for food policy between the FSA, the Department of Health, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and called on him to review the changes.
Undercover footage, photographic evidence and information from whistleblowers revealed how strict industry hygiene standards to prevent the contamination of chicken with the potentially deadly campylobacter bacterium can be flouted on the factory floor and in farms. Two-thirds of fresh chicken on sale in supermarkets is contaminated with the bug and 280,000 people a year are made sick by it.
Maria Eagle, the shadow environment secretary, said: “Chaotic changes have culminated in this bizarre situation where the health secretary has now demanded an urgent investigation the day the FSA said they were ‘content’ with the way the official vet at the chicken processing plant and the company had dealt with incidents.
“The prime minister should now admit he got this wrong and clarify the roles and responsibilities of each department.”
The Guardian understands that Tesco auditors arrived unannounced at 4.30am last Friday at the Llangefni chicken processing site in Wales owned by the 2 Sisters group, after the Guardian had approached the retailer with a series of allegations about hygiene failings at this and another factory. The site supplies several leading supermarkets and fast food chains.
The alleged failings included repeated breakdowns that had led to feathers, guts and offal – high-risk material for the spread of campylobacter – piling up on the factory floor for hours while production continued. Sources also said water in scald tanks, through which birds pass before plucking, was not cleaned for three days. Whistleblowers and an undercover reporter said carcasses that had fallen on the floor at this site and another owned by the same company in Scunthorpe were sometimes recycled back on to the production line.
The company denied this, saying all carcasses from the floor were disposed of as waste. It also said it did not stop the slaughter line when the evisceration and defeathering blockages occurred because it had to consider the welfare of chickens waiting for slaughter. It said that the scald tank incident was isolated, had only lasted one day, and tests have confirmed that bacteria counts were acceptable.
Sainsbury’s and Marks and Spencer confirmed they were customers of the Welsh factory and had carried out inspections, with M&S auditors arriving unannounced last Wednesday. The Guardian understands the Scunthorpe factory has also been audited by retailers, and government inspectors arrived there on Friday.
At crisis meetings on Thursday at the Welsh plant, sources told the Guardian, senior management described a list of measures being taken to clean up the factory and change the way it had been working. They said these included bringing in several extra cleaners, slowing down production lines, ensuring production stops more promptly at night so there is sufficient time for cleaning, and stopping slaughter when breakdowns occur.
A spokesman for 2 Sisters said: “All our customers carry out regular announced and unannounced visits as per normal business operations. No risks to food safety have been raised at any time.
“We work with our customers to continuously improve the quality and safety of our products. All our factories are constantly reviewed to ensure we improve procedures and processes. We are duty-bound to refine our systems and we will continue to do this at all our sites.”
Tesco said it was still investigating. “We take all allegations of this nature seriously and we are conducting additional visits to our poultry suppliers. If any issues are identified that go against our strict standards, we will work with our suppliers to resolve them.” M&S and Sainsbury’s confirmed they had audited the Welsh factory and found no breaches affecting food safety. M&S said it would audit again soon, and Sainsbury’s said it had raised a number of areas for improvement.
A government spokesperson said: “We do not accept that the current division of responsibilities between Defra, the Department of Health and the FSA undermines our ability to protect the public. It is normal for ministers to set policy and for others to enforce it – in this case the FSA.”