The number of Covid-19 infections at food factories that supply UK supermarkets and restaurants could be more than 30 times higher than reported, according to a report which says employers have too much influence over official data.
Food manufacturing – and meat processing plants in particular – have been at the heart of several major local outbreaks, with workers reporting cramped conditions and pressure not to take days off even when displaying symptoms.
But just 47 notifications of Covid-19 workplace infections – and no deaths – have been reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) by food manufacturing companies, who employ 430,000 people in the UK.
An investigation by Pirc, which advises shareholders on ethical investment, found that there have been at least 1,461 infections and six deaths, with the true figures likely to be even higher.
Pirc said the discrepancy was partly due to a loophole that allows companies to determine whether employees were infected on the job, or elsewhere, when they submit reports via the HSE’s Riddor reporting system.
One person interviewed for the report told of fake safety audits at a large plant in Lincolnshire, adding that staff had been told to wear cake boxes as makeshift masks.
“Audits are a sham,” said another interviewee. “Auditors sit in an office for an hour when they arrive to do paperwork and everyone cleans up the plant.”
“Colleagues with COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] were asked to come back into work,” said another food worker.
“When they were shielding, they were earning less than half of what they would have earned on furlough.”
Pirc’s labour specialist, Alice Martin, said the findings showed that figures submitted to HSE by companies, who can be fined for lax workplace safety conditions, “lack credibility”.
“We urge companies across all sectors to put as much information as possible on testing, cases and fatalities into the public domain,” she said.
Pirc based its findings on one-to-one worker interviews, trade union surveys and media reports about food processing companies.
Firms named in media reports of outbreaks include Greencore, Bakkavör, 2 Sisters, Cranswick and Moy Park – all of which are major suppliers to supermarkets and restaurants. There is no suggestion of deliberate under-reporting by any of the companies named.
Labour and trade unions hit out at employers and the government, saying workers and the public are being put at risk by a faulty reporting system.
The Labour MP Luke Pollard said ministers had turned a blind eye to virus outbreaks in food plants. “Labour has pressed ministers repeatedly for action to support people working in these environments but the response from government has been lacklustre at best,” he said.
“While there are some good employers in the food processing sector there are also far too many that are not taking the safety of their workers seriously.
“This underreporting of Covid cases could lead to further outbreaks, meaning we’d lose control of the virus even more.”
Unite national officer Bev Clarkson said official figures were “drastically at odds” with the reality faced by food processing workers, particularly in the meat industry.
“The cold temperatures, metal surfaces and close working conditions found in many food manufacturing sites make them easy environments for the virus to spread in,” she said.
“In too many workplaces these risk factors have been exacerbated by employers neglecting to implement proper coronavirus health and safety measures, as well as refusing to provide adequate sick pay to those who need to self-isolate.”
An HSE spokesperson stressed that it was a legal duty for employers to report cases where there was “reasonable evidence” suggesting a worker caught coronavirus at work.
“We are committed to getting the most accurate picture possible and working with employers who don’t report Riddors as they should.
“If someone sadly dies from Covid-19 infection, again with reasonable evidence of a workplace exposure, if the Riddor report meets the investigation criteria, the case is progressed and an investigation initiated.
“We firmly encourage employers and workers to ensure concerns relating to coronavirus are actively raised and brought to HSE’s attention if required. Firm action will be taken where appropriate.”
The Guardian approached all of the companies named in media reports cited by Pirc.
A spokesperson for the British Meat Processors Association said: “There have been a small number of outbreaks. Companies that experience an outbreak work together with the IMT (incident management team) from the local competent authorities and follow their lead to limit the outbreak and possible cause of transmission.
“Our members have put many physical barriers in place to protect employees in the production areas along with many other measures to protect the workforce.”
Bakkavör, the leading provider of fresh prepared food in the UK, said: “Bakkavör has reported all positive cases of Covid to the PHE [Public Health England] and have also fully complied with the HSE’s Riddor regulatory requirements.”