Reports of rotten pork being sold in UK may lead to tighter control of FSA

Therésè Coffey may bring Food Standards Agency, which oversees England, Wales and Northern Ireland, under remit of Defra

The UK government is considering tightening control over the Food Standards Agency (FSA) following news that allegedly fraudulent pork products found their way on to UK supermarket shelves.

On Thursday, Therésè Coffey, secretary of state for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), told the House of Commons that she will look at bringing the FSA, under her department’s control.

Coffey’s statement followed an investigation by trade publication, Farmers Weekly, which found that until at least the end of 2020, one of the UK’s top food manufacturers has sold mislabelled and sometimes rotten meat to retailers.

Meat produced by the supplier, as yet unnamed, is reported to have ended up in products such as ready meals, quiches, sandwiches and other produce sold in Tesco, Asda, Co-op, Morrisons and Marks & Spencer.

The FSA, a non-ministerial agency currently overseen by the Department of Health and Social Care, which is responsible for public health in relation to food in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, has launched an investigation into the alleged supply chain fraud.

Defra minister of state Sir Robert Goodwill told the VFAB that having talked to the Farmers Weekly team behind the investigation, and read the reports, it was “obvious that the FSA inspectors appear to have been misled by the company, which hid the suspect meat, sometimes in lorries or in other parts of the factory, during the time it took for the inspectors to have a cup of tea and put on their protective clothing on.”

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“We could be looking at people going to prison because of how serious this all is,” he added.

Goodwill said he had “naively assumed FSA was reporting to Defra but actually it was arm’s length and part of the Department of Health and Social Care, which tends to come to it from a health point of view, rather than being closer to the supply chain as Defra would be.”

Asked if a government inquiry might be launched into the supplier, Goodwill said enquires can take time but that a “one-day evidence session … with people from the FSA” was a possibility.

Any full-blown inquiry might wait until investigations were completed, he said. “We don’t want to undermine the prosecution. But we [the House of Commons cross-party environment food and rural affairs select committee] will be discussing what course of action to take after the Easter recess.”

Defra’s farm minister, Mark Spencer, said he had met FSA and hoped it would deliver a criminal prosecution. “We will be keeping a close eye on the investigation,” he said. “And we’ll leave that with the Food Standards Agency to deliver a criminal prosecution.”

Spencer said he would not make any further statement on Thursday because of the “ongoing criminal investigation” that involved “very serious allegations”, which the FSA had a responsibility to investigate. Spencer added that he is in regular contact with both the meat industry and the FSA.

The Farmers Weekly investigation found that tens of thousands of tonnes of foreign pork, mislabelled as British, had found its way into the supply chain each week. The supplier has also been accused by former employees of regularly “washing” visibly bad hams in salt water, and of mixing rotting pork with fresh product for further processing.

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On Wednesday, Darren Davies, head of the FSA’s national food crime unit (NFCU), said the agency was “carrying out a criminal investigation into how a supplier was allegedly providing products labelled as British when they were in fact sourced from elsewhere.”

Davies said the investigation was “complex” and that “all new lines of enquiry … including any potential food hygiene breaches at the premises” were being perused. “If any evidence of a food safety risk is found, then necessary action will be taken,” he said.

Last year, Davies said, the FSA “advised retailers … to check their cooked meat supply chain and to apply extra due diligence in their checks. We don’t give out these alerts without a reason.” Davies warned too that the cost of living crisis could mean that food fraud increases as suppliers face pressure to turn a profit.

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