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Who’s policing the food police?

In the wake of multiple food hygiene scandals, can the industry be trusted to regulate itself? By Nick Hughes.

As public putdowns go, it was particularly caustic. “How many times does Rome have to burn down before you do something?” demanded an exasperated Neil Parish, as the environment, food and rural affairs (EFRA) committee, of which Parish is chair, grilled a panel of certification and assurance bodies over why they had been blind to alleged poor hygiene practices at a 2 Sisters poultry plant last year.

Since the testy exchanges in October, Parish and his colleagues have been given even more fuel to stoke the fire in their bellies. Last month businesses including Wetherspoon and Jamie’s Italian were forced to pull meat products from menus after the Food Standards Agency (FSA) raised concerns of “serious non-compliance with food hygiene regulations” – subsequently shown to relate to processes concerning use-by-dates – at the Birmingham site of their supplier Russell Hume.

Russell Hume has since gone to the wall with the loss of about 270 jobs after customers rushed to terminate supply contracts.

And the recalls kept on coming. In February, MuscleFood withdrew certain meat products supplied by DB Foods which had been labelled with incorrect use-by dates. And Fairfax Meadow voluntarily withdrew some of its meat products from catering customers after unannounced inspections revealed concerns relating to the processes the company had been using for applying use-by dates.

What particularly irked Parish and his fellow committee members was that industry audits had not picked up problems at 2 Sisters’ West Bromwich plant that undercover journalists for ITV and the Guardian had identified in a matter of days.

And the fact that subsequent labelling problems have been uncovered by unannounced audits undertaken by regulators, rather than industry checks, has heaped further pressure on private standards and assurance bodies to show that their accreditations are worth more than the paper they’re written on.

Five years on from the horsemeat scandal and questions are legitimately being asked about whether anything has really changed in private audit and assurance regimes at a time when regulators are proposing to give them even more weight in proving compliance. Even when problems are being identified, a lack of information sharing between businesses and regulators means there remain huge gaps in intelligence on potential food fraud, a full four years after the same gaps were identified as a problem by the government’s independent review into the horsemeat scandal.

Are we living with an assurance culture that isn’t able to offer customers the assurance they expect?

Audits have long been a feature of a food supplier’s day-to-day operations. The Elliott review identified a proliferation of customer, retailer and third-party audits as well as separately conducted inspections by local authorities in which the same basic food safety requirements were being assessed.  It concluded, bluntly, that the quality and completeness of private audits were variable and they served to add substantial costs to industry without any apparent benefit.

The cases of 2 Sisters, Russell Hume and others suggest that little has changed. Wetherspoon says it completed annual independent audits on Russell Hume’s production sites, the last of which took place in June 2017 and achieved a “green” (good) rating. The pub chain says the site was accredited by BRC Global Standards, one of the most common private standards required by UK retailers and foodservice companies, and that the meat was Red Tractor Assured.

Likewise, Jamie’s Italian says it uses an independent team to audit key suppliers. This is hardly unusual. The vast majority of large retail and foodservice companies do exactly the same. But such audits are heavily paper-based and invariably scheduled in advance. Even unannounced audits allow businesses about 30 minutes to prepare before the auditor appears on site.

The thesis that the EFRA committee was repeatedly probing is that these audits are either not picking up problems of non-compliance, or if they are the information captured is not being shared in a way that allows a complete picture of compliance to be built.

BRC Global Standards conceded as much to the EFRA panel when its chief executive, Mark Proctor, admitted that there is no systematic process for bringing together the various audits and assessments conducted by different accreditation and regulatory bodies. “As such there is no single overarching view about standards in a particular plant or facility,” said Proctor.

Both Red Tractor and BRC Global Standards had accredited the 2 Sisters plant in West Bromwich. For MPs this was proof of the patchwork nature of both the food accreditation system and such firms’ interaction with the FSA. “As far as I can see, everybody seems to do separate audits, nobody seems to talk to anybody and then people can slip through,” said Parish.

Chris Elliott, whose review shone a spotlight on ineffectual auditing practices, believes that fraud awareness has improved in places. He cites Marks & Spencer’s integrity audit as a gold standard to which businesses should aspire. However, in general he believes that little has changed since the horsemeat scandal. “A lot of the feedback I get is that businesses are getting audited even more now. Everybody is trying to pass responsibility back down the supply chain and so there is huge demand for audits, but the quality has not improved.”

Under pressure from MPs, Proctor and BRC Global Standards’ technical director, David Brackston, outlined some of the changes that have been made to audits since the horsemeat scandal. There is now a requirement within BRC Global Standards’ core food safety standard for businesses to maintain awareness of potential emerging risks, to have undertaken a risk assessment and have a programme in place to monitor raw materials and the suppliers of those raw materials. Audits also include a full mass balance traceability audit, which checks that inputs into the production process are accounted for in the output.

But the Elliott review’s call for the creation of separate modules for food fraud prevention and detection, which incorporate disciplines such as forensic accountancy, appear to have fallen on deaf ears. BRC Global Standards tells Footprint that it has held extensive conversations with its stakeholders about the development of a fraud audit, but “this would require a completely different expertise from that of a food safety auditor and would need to be more of an accountancy or financial audit”. For this reason it is has no plans to develop such an audit in the short term.

Another key finding from the Elliott review was that intelligence on possible food fraud was not routinely flowing either between businesses and the regulator or between rival businesses. On this point, progress has been made. In 2016, the Food Industry Intelligence Network (FIIN) was established to provide a “safe space” for businesses to share high-level data on authenticity testing and traceability data undertaken as part of members’ own audits. Results are shared with a third party – Campden BRI – which provides a high-level analysis to members who represent about 70% of the UK food manufacturing and retail market.

Elliott, who analyses the data received from the FIIN and advises on potential risks, says the model is now working well. Testing, he says, has become more strategic and suspicions are being investigated.

But although it has signed an information sharing agreement with Food Standards Scotland (FSS) and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), the FIIN is not routinely sharing the analysis of this anonymised, aggregated data with the FSA. Both parties say they are at the final stages of putting in place an information-sharing agreement which would enable data to be fed into the FSA’s National Food Crime Unit (NFCU).

Until that happens the NFCU will continue to work off scraps. Presenting to the FSA’s board in December, its head of food crime, Andy Morling, reported that the NFCU depends almost entirely for its success on the pipeline of information it receives. Morling noted that industry participants have been slow to avail themselves of the opportunity to report suspicions or confirmed cases to the NFCU. One reason, he suggested, was their failure to detect fraud through audit and sampling, but he also said businesses were reluctant to report any suspicions to the NFCU.

The FSA says concerns among food businesses that sharing suspicions and confirmed cases of fraud with the NFCU may result in brand damage are “entirely misplaced”. The reality, however, is that fear of involving the regulator has existed for a number of years. One experienced environmental health officer told Footprint that only once in a 25-year career has a third-party audit brought to their attention a problem that required addressing.

The NFCU is further hamstrung by the fact it doesn’t currently have a mandate to investigate food fraud. At the moment, this responsibility is falling on local authorities which, by and large, are under-resourced and lack the skills to conduct criminal fraud enquiries. Late last year, cross-Whitehall agreement was secured to submit a business case to the Treasury for expansion of the NFCU. The business case will be submitted in May and a decision is expected by early summer.

An effective police force will surely help with the fight against food fraud but it is just one piece of a complex puzzle.

In the meantime, the FSA continues to consult on changes to enforcement under which private assurance schemes would be given more weight in proving regulatory compliance. The FSA says recent problems concerning the meat industry have not changed its view that this is the right approach. Others, like Elliott, are less convinced. “Doing these things through the private sector is fantastic because they are more agile and it doesn’t cost as much money, but you have to be absolutely sure there’s the same level of rigour. I don’t think anyone has convinced me that third-party audits have that level of rigour.”

At a time when private assurance schemes are under more scrutiny than ever, businesses are being given more power to police themselves. If ever there was a time for the industry to get its house in order, it’s now. The public’s health and the industry’s own reputation depends on it.