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Protecting our Plates – Whistleblowing in the Food Sector

The Food Standards Agency (“FSA”) – a prescribed body for whistleblowers to raise health concerns in the food supply chain – has come under fire this week after fraudulent pork found its way to the shelves of almost all major UK supermarkets.

An investigation conducted by Abi Kay from Farmer’s Weekly revealed longstanding and widespread criminal activity at a meat processing factory. This was known about by employees who were afraid to speak up to their managers for fear of being bullied or losing their jobs. Several sources told Farmers Weekly they were not aware of who they should blow the whistle to, highlighting that whistleblowing arrangements were clearly not working at this factory.

Former factory employees had accused the processor of salt-washing hams that were visibly off, mixing rotten pork with fresh product and falsifying sampling paperwork which is designed to identify dangerous bacteria such as listeria and E. coli. The meat processor is said to have defrauded British farmers and consumers by passing off thousands of tonnes of foreign pork a week as British.

10 years on from horsemeat

Many consumers will recall the scandal of 2013 where horsemeat was detected in foods labelled as beef burgers, which crushed consumer confidence in the food system and how it is regulated. The government review that followed led to the establishment of a law enforcement body within the FSA, the National Food Crime Unit (“NFCU”), to investigate actors with clear criminal intent – not just those failing to meet the laws and standards of good food governance.

Chris Elliot, who led the 2013 review, stated on The News Agents podcast that the recent scandal is “nearly déjà vu” and that the criticisms he levied against the quality of food inspections and audits of food businesses a decade ago appear to be the case today. His view was that a failure of food audits was central to this scandal. The meat processor was able to deceive auditors, even on surprise visits, due to the 15-minute gap between auditors signing into the premises and entering the factory floor. This allowed management to warn the workers to hide the questionable meat in lorries, the loading bay or on a trolley and push it round one side of the factory while auditors and management were on the other.

Regulatory failure?

Abi Kay, who initially broke the story, casts blame on the FSA and the NFCU for failing to act upon whistleblower concerns, even calling their inaction “negligent”. She says that the meat processor was on the radar of the FSA and NFCU since 2020, but a former employee claimed to have sent photographs and information about the processor’s poor practices several years before then. The FSA started its initial investigation into the mislabeling at the processor’s factory in September 2021 but claimed that the food safety allegations have been “much more recent”. The FSA alerted retailers of the food safety issues in 2022 but did not extend this alert to all food manufacturers and food service businesses according to the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers.

The FSA publishes the number of whistleblowing disclosures it receives each year and how many it acts on. Between 1 April 2021 and 31 March 2022, the FSA received 222 disclosures and acted on 159 of them stating that the remaining 63 did not leave contact details to retrieve further information that would enable an investigation. The NFCU is conducting a criminal investigation into the current scandal, whilst the FSA has admitted that it will need to look at whether the audit process could be tightened up. However, the question should be asked if the FSA has adequate resources – this criminal investigation alone involves more than six million documents, and there are 27 staff running eight live investigations.

The environment secretary has said that she would consider bringing the FSA under her department’s control after the chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee said that it was clear the FSA had been “misled and hoodwinked by these operators”. The FSA is a non-ministerial body currently under the purview of the Department of Health and Social Care, but it is not clear whether this change alone would provide greater accountability.

Protect’s view

Whistleblowers are the eyes and ears of an organisation and once again a public scandal reveals that concerns had already been raised. All organisations in the food supply chain should have effective internal arrangements in place to identify risk and wrongdoing early. But if there is widespread criminal activity, it is vital that staff can go in confidence to the regulator, and good employers would make this channel known to staff.

The regulator in turn needs to ensure that it acts on information provided by whistleblowers, and provides feedback that it is doing so, wherever possible. Former employees have gone to the press as they feared that was the only way to expose wrongdoing. Whistleblowers take risks when passing information to journalists, and they should not have to do so where there is a prescribed regulator whose duty it is to protect consumers from harm by investigating such concerns.

Written by Nicholas Hayes.

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