‘Tesco in fresh embarrassment as it admits its pork sausages were contaminated with chicken and its venison burgers contained lamb.’
That was the headline that appeared in a national newspaper over the weekend based on a story The Grocer broke late last Thursday. Similar headlines, suggesting Tesco had “suffered a further blow” in the wake of its accounting revelations, have since appeared in other publications.
Tesco is rightly facing flak over its financial affairs at the moment, but to suggest the cross-contamination cases we reported are an “embarrassment” for the retailer is a serious misreading of the facts.
It is indeed an embarrassing situation for the three Tesco suppliers in question, some of whom did not stick to agreed standards. In his report on the cases, Tesco’s Tim Smith didn’t mince his words, warning there would be “consequences” if standards weren’t clamped down on and similar cases emerged.
But let’s be clear on Tesco’s role here: there’s no legal obligation to report cross-contamination cases of this nature. The reason these cases are known about is because a) Tesco was testing for such incidents in the first place, and b) because it made the results public. That’s a lot more than can be said for other retailers.
As one supply chain expert said to me last week: “My immediate thought is to give Tesco a round of applause. The scale and transparency of what they are doing in terms of checking the integrity of their supply chains is extremely welcome.”
So no, this isn’t yet another Tesco scandal that draws a straight line from financial accounting to sausage-making. What these cases highlight is that cross-contamination – or ‘carryover’ – during the production of processed meat products remains a very live issue for retailers and their meat suppliers.
Hotly debated at the height of Horsegate, cross-contamination has received rather less attention since the horsemeat revelations died down. These cases – particularly the scale of carryover in some instances (up to 30% in one case) – show there still remains a lot of work to be done in delivering best practice.
Although carryover of undeclared chicken, turkey or lamb is, of course, much less controversial than undeclared horsemeat (and there was no health risk with the products found by Tesco) the point is that we’re still talking about undeclared proteins being present – and the consumer therefore not getting what is advertised on the label. That’s a problem, and addressing it must be a priority for retailers and suppliers. If a particular multi-species processing set-up can’t deliver a ‘no carryover’ guarantee, consumers must be made aware that the product they are buying could contain carryover proteins.
But let’s not pretend this is a problem unique to Tesco. We just happen to know about the issues in its supply chain because it has chosen to disclose them. If we are going to insist that Tesco ought to feel ‘embarrassed’ about its cross-contamination cases, we should be making others feel equally embarrassed about their silence.