The largest supplier of chicken to UK supermarkets has been tampering with food safety records in moves that could dupe consumers into buying meat past its use-by date.
An investigation by the Guardian and ITV News recorded undercover footage of workers altering the slaughter date of poultry being processed at a 2 Sisters Food Group plant. The group produces a third of all poultry products eaten in the UK and supplies top grocers including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Marks & Spencer, Aldi and Lidl.
When informed of the evidence, all five retailers responded to say they would launch immediate investigations.
The discovery comes just four years after the 2013 horsemeat scandal, which has resulted in prison sentences for those convicted of a conspiracy to pass off cheaper horsemeat as beef.
Experts said the practice of changing “kill dates” could artificially stretch the commercial life of meat products by triggering the food processor to print incorrect use-by dates on supermarket packaging.
Workers at the company confirmed they had been asked to switch these labels on other occasions. It is illegal to place incorrect use-by dates on food, which are set for safety reasons and differ from “best before” dates.
The joint investigation, which involved taking secret recordings during a spell of 12 working days inside 2 Sisters’ plant in West Bromwich, also captured evidence that:
• Workers drop chickens on the floor of the processing plant and return them to the production line.
• Workers alter records of where chickens were slaughtered, potentially hindering authorities from recalling contaminated meat during food scares.
• Chickens slaughtered on different dates are mixed on the production line. Workers said use-by dates printed on the packets of the mixed chicken tended to reflect the age of the freshest, rather than oldest, meat in the batch.
Having been shown the evidence, Prof Chris Elliott, a food safety academic from Queen’s University Belfast who led the UK government’s independent review of food systems following the 2013 horsemeat scandal, said: “Over the past three to four years I have conducted many inspections of food businesses right across the UK. I have never seen one operate under such poor standards as your video evidence shows.
“I think [this] absolutely calls out for a full investigation. We need to get environmental health officers, we need to get the Food Standards Agency to do a thorough investigation. The Food Standards Agency will take this very seriously. They will look at the premises and see if there are grounds to close the facility down.”
The company said it had not been given enough time or detail to respond to the allegations, which it described as “false”.
A letter from 2 Sisters Food Group’s legal advisers, Schillings, said: “Food safety and hygiene are 2SFG’s top priorities. To the extent that you have identified any shortcomings (which is not admitted), these could only be isolated examples which our clients would take very seriously, and they are investigating the allegations made.”
One worker said: “I have [changed the slaughter dates] lots of times when I was working in that area. My supervisor, he asked me do it … If you are buying fresh chicken it can be older chicken.”
A second worker claimed that 2 Sisters quality control staff in the West Midlands were working in a “pointless job” and could feel intimidated and be overruled by production supervisors who treated them as “enemies”.
On one occasion the Guardian/ITV footage captured workers altering the “kill date” of hundreds of chickens to one day later at the group’s West Bromwich plant in August. Other workers added that they had witnessed dates being altered by more than a day.
Supermarket products typically have a use-by date around 10 days after the bird has been slaughtered.
Speaking about how chicken is returned by supermarket distribution centres, a third 2 Sisters worker said: “They will repack [the returned meat] like [it is] today’s production … It is sent back on [the line] like today’s production. They mix it with today’s production.”
Supermarkets return chicken to suppliers for a variety of reasons that can include packaging and labelling errors. Being returned does not mean it is unfit to eat. However, if older meat is mixed with fresher meat, the use-by date should reflect the age of the oldest meat in the batch.
A fourth worker added: “I try to make them change the [use-by] date to [reflect the] older DOK [date of kill] but that doesn’t happen – they mix.”
The footage shows chicken that has been processed and packed for Lidl being reopened and mixed with other pieces of poultry. The drumsticks re-emerge at the end of the line showing in packets saying they have come from Tesco’s Willow Farms. The labelling on the pack says the contents are “reared exclusively for Tesco”.
Schillings said: “The Willow Farms brand is exclusive to Tesco, but the raw material is not. 2SFG meets the raw materials specifications for the Willow Farms brand.”
Food law experts also added that the film amounted to prima facie evidence that the company had potentially committed offences.
The five big supermarkets supplied by 2 Sisters’ West Bromwich plant all said they took quality and safety standards very seriously and were investigating.
A Tesco spokesperson said: “We operate to the highest possible food quality and safety standards, carrying out our own regular audits at all of our suppliers to ensure these standards are maintained. As such, we take these allegations extremely seriously and will be carrying out our own rigorous investigation.”
A Lidl spokesperson said: “Lidl UK takes the issue of food safety extremely seriously and, as such, we conduct independent audits to ensure that our high quality and safety standards are met. Therefore, we are very disappointed to learn of these allegations and will be urgently investigating this matter with the supplier.”