Scandals in the meat industry make fairly frequent news. Many consumers will recall the horse meat scandal in 2013 which found undeclared horse in beefburgers and lasagne and Mad Cow’s disease in the 1990s. But today we still hear regular news stories of mislabelling and of out of date meat making its way onto consumer plates. And on Protect’s advice line, we hear from whistleblowers about a range of poor hygiene practices, lack of refrigeration or failures to adequately test food products.
So how well is whistleblowing working in the industry – are whistleblowers being listened to when they raise concerns to their employers, or does the wealth of news stories mean that external whistleblowing is the only way to get the harm stopped?
The latest undercover expose in the industry by the Daily Mirror, (August 4, Fast-growing ‘Franken-chickens’ reared for Morrisons die in ‘extreme’ agony and filth’ accuses Morrisons supermarket of rearing ‘welfare assured’ chickens which are being bred unnaturally fast in appalling conditions, and slaughtered at 35 days old.
Animal welfare campaigners have accused Morrisons and its Market Street branding of welfare hypocrisy. The CEO of the animal rights group, Open Cages, Connor Jackson said “Morrisons cannot sell them, profit off their deformed, weak bodies, and then claim to take animal welfare seriously.”
And earlier this year, a whistleblower told The Guardian chickens are “dying like flies” in their millions while being transported from farms to abattoirs because of poorly ventilated lorries. This was confirmed by the Regulator, the Food Standards Agency say around one million chickens are dead on arrival at slaughterhouses in England and Wales every year and the Government is ‘concerned’ about the high number of bird deaths.
More transparency is clearly needed from both retailers and supply chains about food. M&S recently announced it will stop selling fast-growing chickens in all fresh produce by Autumn 2022. Waitrose and KFC are among the 240 companies across Europe to pledge to stop selling them by 2026.
Protect proposes in its draft whistleblowing bill that animal abuse, neglect or cruelty should be added to the “categories of concern” that can be raised by whistleblowers, to make it crystal clear that workers raising such concerns should have the full protection of the law. However, in the meantime, many animal welfare concerns are likely already to be covered by whistleblowing law as breaches of legal obligations or criminal offences.
In June, Protect welcomed the Food Standards Agency to our webinar ‘Protecting our Plates: Whistleblowing in the Food & Drinks Industry’ to discuss whistleblowing in the sector. We heard from them just how wide the range of food crime categories is – from adulterating food with harmful chemicals to improve how they look, to livestock fraud and waste distribution back into food chains.
Indeed, the Food Standards Agency contains a National Food Crime Unit and its Head of Analysis and Futures, Giles Chapman, explained its role to delegates. The Unit’s approach to food crime was ‘Pursue, Protect, Prepare, Prevent’. In his view “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. He posed the question to delegates, ‘Would you rather hear from an employee, supplier or regulator?’
Good employers recognise the importance of whistleblowing by their staff as an early warning system – allowing them to detect wrongdoing before it becomes a major scandal. A strong whistleblowing culture can also deter others from wrongdoing. It plays an important role in good governance and shows that an organisation is accountable – to its shareholders, suppliers, staff and consumers.
Protect’s Business Support Team work with several food and manufacturing clients, and we are keen to do more. Food and drink manufacturers employ over 440,000 people, and there are a further 4.3 million workers in the food supply chain – it is one of the UK’s largest sectors. Yet for many businesses in the sector, whistleblowing is in its infancy.