The country’s largest supplier of supermarket chicken has suspended production at one of its main processing plants after undercover filming revealed poor hygiene standards and food safety records being altered.
The temporary closure by 2 Sisters Food Group (2SFG), which will now put employees at the plant through a retraining programme, came as Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, joined the boycott of the poultry group’s West Midlands plant in the wake of a joint undercover investigation by the Guardian and ITV News.
A spokesman for 2SFG, which supplies a third of all poultry products eaten in the UK, said: “We are shocked and distressed by the allegations and the footage which we saw for the first time on Thursday 28 September. Since the allegations were put to us by the Guardian/ITV, we have been working around the clock to get to the truth of the matter.
“The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been in daily attendance since the allegations were raised and confirmed that it has not identified any breaches. However, our internal investigation has shown some isolated instances of non-compliance with our own quality management systems.
“We have therefore decided to temporarily suspend operations at the site to allow us the time to retrain all colleagues including management in all food safety and quality management systems.”
A Tesco spokesperson added: “Following last week’s allegations of poor practices at 2 Sisters we conducted additional quality assurance tests. We’d like to reassure customers our initial investigation supported the Food Standards Agency’s findings that there was no current evidence of breach of food safety procedures. However, there have been isolated incidents where food quality procedures have not been followed and therefore, in agreement with 2 Sisters we have decided to suspend all orders from Site D so that staff can receive further training. We will not be taking any more chicken from the site until this has been addressed and all processes are carried out to the highest standard.”
Tesco’s move emerged after the retailer initially resisted halting supplies from 2 Sisters Food Group’s West Bromwich site, despite four rivals suspending deliveries from the plant. Instead, Tesco placed inspectors inside the West Midlands facility in order to oversee the chicken processor’s production team. But the grocer reversed that stance on Sunday evening.
On Friday Marks & Spencer, Aldi and Lidl all announced they had suspended deliveries from the 2 Sisters plant, while Sainsbury’s followed suit a day later. M&S said the footage showed “unacceptable” standards and also pulled chicken sourced from the plant from its shelves. The moves came after the Guardian and ITV released undercover footage on Thursday showing an instance of 2 Sisters workers altering the source and slaughter date of poultry being processed in the firm’s Site D plant. Experts said altering “kill dates” could artificially stretch the commercial life of the meat and dupe consumers into buying chicken past its use-by date. It is illegal to place incorrect use-by dates on food, which are set for safety reasons and differ from “best before” dates.
Other sections of the footage, which was filmed in August, showed chicken being picked off the floor and thrown back on to the production line, and older poultry being mixed with fresher birds. All five grocers supplied with chicken from the plant quickly announced their own investigations, as did the Food Standards Agency, which had conducted nine audits at the site – five of which were unannounced – in the months of July and August. The regulator has urged “anyone with information for this investigation” to make contact.
The chairman of parliament’s environment, food and rural affairs committee, Neil Parish, said on Friday he was preparing to call 2 Sisters founder, Ranjit Singh Boparan, to Westminster to answer questions about the scandal. 2 Sisters Food Group is the UK’s second largest food company by turnover and claims to process around 6 million chickens every week.
It is owned by Ranjit Singh Boparan and his wife, Baljinder Kaur Boparan, and the chicken operations – which include 12 sites in the UK – are part of a sprawling £3bn food empire that separately includes the turkey producer Bernard Matthews, the restaurant chains Harry Ramsden, FishWorks and Giraffe, plus food brands such as Fox’s Biscuits and Goodfella’s pizza.
The company added that its staff “will remain on full pay and will attend the site” while the company overhauls its procedures and that operations will only recommence once the firm is satisfied its staff have been properly retrained.
“We continue to work closely with the FSA and our customers throughout this period. We remain committed to ensuring that we operate to the highest standards of hygiene and food safety, and we act with honesty and integrity at all times,” the company said.