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Protecting our Plates: Whistleblowing in the Food & Drinks Industry

What is the whistleblowing culture like amongst the food and drinks sector? What are the challenges?  Protect, the UK whistleblowing charity hosted a round table during National Food Safety Week (June 14-20) to find out more…

Getting whistleblowing right, and truly embedding it into an organisation is not easy. From our experience, things go awry when a company fails to take whistleblowing as seriously as it should, and fails to understand the benefits it can offer. Many just ‘tick the box’ by having a whistleblowing policy  ‘somewhere on the intranet’. Communicating regularly to staff from senior management to the Board that they want to hear from staff who see something wrong, is a step so many companies fail to take. Staff need to be told they will be listened to, and not victimised for speaking up.

Sounds simple enough.

But, as we have seen from the BBC and its whistleblowing scandal, and more recently, the alleged toxic work culture at Brewdog, getting a truly transparent, safe to speak up work culture is not always easy.

Delegates heard from Protect Chief Executive Liz Gardiner, that Protect’s Advice Line had seen a substantial rise in calls from the food sector during Covid.  Many calls were related to furlough fraud, with hospitality staff being asked to work whilst on furlough. Calls were also to do with Covid health and safety measures being breached.

Giles Chapman, Head of Analysis and Futures at the National Food Crime Unit which sits within the Food Standards Agency, gave an overview of the work of the National Food Crime Unit and its approach to food crime ‘ Pursue, Protect, Prepare, Prevent’. In his view “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

Giles spoke of some of the food crime categories, from adulterating food with harmful chemicals to improve how they look, to livestock fraud and waste distribution back into food chains.  He posed the question to delegates, ‘Would you rather hear from an employee, supplier or regulator?’

A colleague from the Sensitive Intelligence Unit spoke about his work (a department set up a year ago) which takes responsibility for taking information from external whistleblowers and talked through some of the work they deal with.  Their policy is to work with the whistleblower, and assess the risks to them from the outset:  keeping their names confidential even within the wider FSA.

Break out rooms showcased some of the good practice that delegates are doing in their own organisations.  They discussed some of the challenges faced by the industry, which are summarised below:

  • One delegate said Covid was a catalyst for better understanding of what whistleblowing is and driving more whistleblowing engagement in the workplace.
  • Stronger communication had really helped some get a better oversight of supply chains.
  • Another said despite many multiple channels from surveys, posters, post boxes and forums, getting employees to use internal whistleblowing mechanisms – even if well communicated – was an issue with staff preferring to take concerns to a regulator. All agreed regularly reviewing and refreshing communications is key and one firm had adapted communications as staff did not have time on short breaks to read through ‘wordy brochures’ were engaging through short messages on TVs.
  • Surveys, most agreed were a useful tool in helping staff to demonstrate transparency, but ‘wording and asking the right sort of questions in the right way’ was key.
  • One delegate said engaging with temporary agency staff and whistleblowing was a challenge, as there was less interest in company values than permanent staff.
  • Another acknowledged some organisations did not always consider whistleblowing to be a core part of the day to day business which was a mistake, with it being seen as ‘an unwelcome distraction’ and ‘a last resort’.

Testing whistleblowing arrangements regularly to see how effective they actually are is crucial – otherwise, what is the point of them? One delegate said, ‘We thought we were good until we went through Protect’s Benchmark process and realised we weren’t as good as we thought’.

Protect urges all employers to assess their whistleblowing framework, and would be delighted to explain how our unique Whistleblowing Benchmark can help. Call the team on 020 3117 2520 or email business@protect-advice.org.uk

Protect thanks the Food Standards Agency and the delegates for their time participating in Protecting our Plates: Whistleblowing in the Food Industry.

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