Food Standards Agency attacked over rotten meat scandal as minister threatens to place it in special measures

Fresh meat - Moment RF
Fresh meat - Moment RF

The UK’s food watchdog was “hoodwinked” by an alleged rogue meat supplier, MPs have been told, as the Environment Secretary threatened to bring the body under her control.

The Food Standards Agency has been accused of “failing to protect the public” after supermarket chains learned this week of a two-year investigation which began as a probe into fraudulent labelling and is now looking into claims of “rotten” meat ending up on the shelves.

Supermarkets have admitted they cannot be sure that none of the suspect meat remains on sale.

The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) said it was “utterly reprehensible” that the FSA and its investigative body the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) had not “alerted [suppliers] at any time to date…as to there either being a possibility of labelling fraud or of a risk to public health”.

Therese Coffey, the Environment Secretary, said she would now consider bringing the FSA - a non-ministerial department - under the control of Defra.

Tory MP Sir Robert Goodwill, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the Commons, said he was “appalled” to learn of the issue and that “it’s quite clear [the FSA] have been misled and hoodwinked by these operators”.

He suggested the FSA should be brought under the control of Defra, rather than the Department of Health and Social Care which it currently answers to, and Ms Coffey said: “The machinery of Government change he proposes is one of interest, and I will consider that in line with the Prime Minister."

The AIMS said the FSA and NFCU now had “serious questions to answer” about their failure “to protect the public and honest companies from the risks to human health and fraud”, adding that management “at the highest levels” should now consider their positions.

Norman Bagley, head of policy at AIMS, said: “It is clear to us that when the FSA board was made aware of the NFCU’s investigation two years ago in December 2021 and again 12 months later, neither the board nor any member of the executive staff simply asked the basic question of what level of risk to consumers this business posed.”

Emily Miles, the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency, said: "Based on the investigation to date, there is no indication that food is unsafe or there is an increased risk to consumers."

The FSA has insisted it did issue an alert to the industry in 2022, but retailers have said it only had limited circulation and was not sent to them.

Ready meals, sandwiches, quiches and other produce sold by Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, the Co-op and Marks & Spencer have contained meat processed by the Midlands-based firm under investigation, which cannot be named for legal reasons.

Its factory, which closed earlier this month, also supplied the food manufacturer Oscar Mayer, whose customers include Sainsbury’s, Aldi, Ikea, Subway and the airline food firm Dnata.

Retailers are confident there are no food safety issues because the meat in question will have been heat-treated during the manufacturing process, but industry sources said the foodstuffs should have been cut out of the supply chain as soon as it became clear there was a potential problem.

An investigation by Farmers Weekly alleged that “rotting” pork was mixed with fresh meat at the processing plant, and that frozen meat was sometimes thawed out on the factory floor. It alleged that “criminal practices” had gone on for at least 20 years before they were exposed by whistleblowers.

One major supermarket chain told the Telegraph it had had no contact from the FSA and supermarkets were having to carry out checks “as fast as we can” to make sure none of the meats in question were in their supply chain, though they did not “believe” there was any.

The British Retail Consortium, which represents most of the retailers affected, said none of its members had so far discovered any evidence of meat products from the suspect factory on their shelves or in their supply chain.

One industry source said that it was possible that products with a long shelf life, such as tinned soups, could contain meat processed by the factory under investigation, adding that meat products that people have kept in their freezers for long periods could also be affected.

There is no evidence that anyone has become ill after eating any of the products.

Last week, three people were arrested at the firm’s factory during a raid by police and trading standards officers. The arrests were linked to alleged fraudulent labelling of foreign-sourced meats as British products. The NFCU confirmed it is also looking into “potential food hygiene breaches”.

The FSA said it advised retailers “to check their cooked meat supply chain and to apply extra due diligence in their checks” when its investigation began.

Andrew Quinn, Deputy Head of the NFCU, said: “The FSA’s National Food Crime Unit is carrying out a criminal investigation into how one supplier allegedly provided products labelled as British when they were in fact sourced from South America and Europe. The initial retailer was notified at the same time the NFCU acted against the food business suspected of the fraud.

“We are looking into all new lines of enquiry with our partner organisations, including any potential food hygiene breaches, and acting where necessary to protect public health.

“At a time when cost pressures and other challenges mean the risks of food fraud might be increasing, it is vital that everyone involved in the food chain works to ensure that food is safe and what it says it is.”

From Tony Blair to the FSA: The life and times of long-term civil servant Emily Miles

By Hannah Boland, retail editor 

When long-term civil servant Emily Miles was asked what set the Food Standards Agency apart from all her other roles in government, the agency chief executive said she had never seen such a "determined commitment to openness".

Yet, now, it is exactly this which is being called into question, as supermarkets race to figure out what exactly has been going on behind the scenes that they are only just now learning of potential rotten meat in their supply chains when the FSA has allegedly known for at least two years.

Miles has run the FSA since late 2019, having held a spate of other civil servant roles, starting her career in politics as a policy advisor on home affairs to Tony Blair between 2002 and 2005.

Her addition at the head of the FSA came at what was seen as a pivotal moment for the agency, with decisions to be made over the UK's new regulatory regime outside the EU. Yet, years later, critics argue there is still much work to do here.

In February this year, the FSA faced criticism from the Food, Poverty, Health and Environment House of Lords Committee for "taking forever" to establish British food safety laws to replace the EU rules.

The laws are set to be scrapped from the end of this year as part of the "sunset clause" with the EU, which requires ministers to review and green-light any legislation which may be carried over from the trading bloc.

The FSA at the time said it was facing “substantial headwinds” and “real challenges over resources”. It later said it was for parliament and not the FSA to decide which laws to keep.

Miles took over at the helm of the FSA after a lengthy career across the civil service - most recently having worked at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for four years, where she had been focused on preparing the department for the EU exit. Just before leaving for the FSA, she had been the group director of strategy for Defra - a role which she said taught her that "you can’t anticipate everything".

Prior to that, Miles had held a host of various positions at the Home Office, Downing Street and Cabinet Office stretching back 15 years. It was a period which almost prompted her to leave the civil service altogether, she said.

After working as director of policing at the Home Office, and running projects to clear the UK's historic asylum caseload backlog and to establish a new professional police body the College of Policing, Miles said in an interview in 2020 that she almost gave up on the civil service because she felt her style did not fit.

In the interview with The Grocer, she said that some decisions "felt sketchy at the time (like when I agreed to lead work to close down a police arm's length body, which was disheartening)".

However, she said, "in the end I found a home for my more people-centric, emotionally open approach".