Hygiene audit

I was one of the commentators on the undercover video footage obtained by the ITV/Guardian newspaper investigation of the 2 Sisters processing plant in the Midlands.

My commentary was around what I observed of the food hygiene and traceability standards. Both concerned me greatly and I called for a thorough investigation by the FSA. This is now under way and a House of Commons inquiry has been launched.

It is certainly not my intention to prejudge the outcomes of either investigation but I will again voice my deepest concerns over how food businesses are audited in the UK, which involves multiple copycat audits while failing to address what they should be focused on: determining if businesses are operating in the manner they should in terms of making sure that the food we the UK public purchase and consume is produced to the appropriate standards of safety and integrity.

The costs of auditing in the UK are enormous and contribute to the cost of the food we purchase. Thus we the public are not getting value for money in any shape or form.Audit after audit does the same tickbox exercises, the results of which are never shared. Can you imagine going to get two medical opinions and the medics not knowing the outcomes of the other? This is utter nonsense. I would urge the Select Committee to ask serious questions about how food business audits should operate. A reduction in the cost burden and an immense improvement in quality are achievable. I really think it’s time for the vested interests striving to keep the same old same old be weeded out and new ways of operating introduced. Audits need to be unannounced, rigorous, and performed by very well trained staff who understand what to look for and where to look, and know what questions to ask that might make business operators feel uncomfortable.

Back to the video evidence. I saw raw chicken that had been dropped on the floor put back on production lines. It may turn out to be a rogue employee but a correct food safety culture in the facility would mean fellow workers acting to stop such practices. For example, I still vividly recall, on an inspection I conducted, that when I touched something I shouldn’t have, I was reprimanded (firmly) by workers on the line. On another occasion the CEO of a business apologised to me for the abrupt behaviour of one of his staff. I replied to give “Give that lady a pay rise, she exemplifies the culture of the very good business you operate.”

That is the culture you want: one that values its staff, treats them with respect, trains them, empowers them and rewards good practice. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how many auditors do the rounds. Your business is at risk.

Professor Chris Elliott is director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast