Rotten meat investigators have made three arrests and 'seized six million documents' from factory

·3-min read
Fresh meat - Dag Sundberg/Getty
Fresh meat - Dag Sundberg/Getty

Wholesalers “colluded” with a factory at the centre of the rotten meat investigation, it has been alleged, as the food industry watchdog was urged to widen its inquiry.

Whistleblowers are reported to have come forward to claim that firms they worked for were part of the alleged scam, which centres on a processing plant in the Midlands.

It came as the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency admitted that inspectors need to “tighten up” the way they operate, after it emerged that staff at rogue firms have time to hide evidence before the inspectors get onto the factory floor.

The FSA and its National Food Crime Unit began an investigation into fraudulent labelling of food at the factory in question in August 2021, and has faced criticism from retailers who have said they only found out about the investigation through media reports this week.

Emily Miles, the chief executive of the FSA, gave an indication of the scale of the investigation when she told the BBC that investigators had seized six million documents from the premises, and had since been back and seized millions more, as well as making three arrests.

'No current concerns for the public'

Asked whether she could give consumers a categoric reassurance that there was no risk to public health, she said: “At the moment there are no current concerns about meat on the market but there have been some recent historic allegations.”

The fraud investigation - which centred on foreign meat being passed off as British - has been widened to include allegations unearthed by Farmers Weekly that rotten meat was mixed with fresh meat at the plant, and that frozen meat was thawed out on the factory floor.

The magazine has also alleged that paperwork that documented sampling for bacteria including listeria and e-coli - which can be deadly - was falsified.

Abi Kay, the reporter who broke the story, told the Today programme: “I don’t think it’s a one-off. I know there were several other businesses, meat wholesalers in particular, who were colluding with this processor.”

Ms Miles did not dispute the possibility that the problem was more widespread. She said: "It’s a big industry, of course there are going to be rogue actors.”

She added: “In this factory when the auditors visited they had a certain amount of time between signing in to the premises and being allowed onto the factory floor.

“In that short space of time a text message would go out and all the staff would get to work moving any suspect product onto lorries in the loading bay or loading it onto a trolley and pushing it around one side of the factory while auditors and management were on the other. That is how ridiculous this is.”

'Things need to be tightened up'

Asked about the delay in inspectors getting onto the factory floor, Ms Miles said: “We do need to look at whether there are things that need to be tightened up there.”

Meat from the factory ended up in products sold by almost all major supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Asda, the Co-op and Aldi.

Retailers have complained that the FSA failed to alert them to the investigation of the firm, though the FSA says it did send out an alert in 2022.

Farmers Weekly has claimed that the FSA was told about the alleged rogue factory years before the investigation began.

Ms Miles said: “To be clear this was a meat premises that was regulated by the local authority initially. We did receive some earlier allegations that we passed on to the local authority and those were followed up.

“We act on intelligence, as soon as we got intelligence we acted.”

She added: “The issue with criminal activity is that companies who do behave like this are potentially duplicitous. Retailers and manufacturers have to be vigilant and do their own sampling.”