Source: Alamy

The supplier was linked to a National Food Crime Unit probe into the passing off of imported beef as British

The meat company subject to an ongoing FSA National Food Crime Unit investigation over alleged incidences of food fraud has ceased trading and appointed administrators.

FRP Advisory today confirmed it had been appointed by the board of Loscoe Chilled Foods, which was identified on 13 March as the business involved in the unit’s Operation Hawk probe into the passing off of imported beef as British.

The Derbyshire-based supplier told The Grocer at the time it was “supporting the FSA with an investigation into an isolated issue concerning sliced corned beef supplied to a single customer in March 2021”. It stressed the probe was “only looking at one incident, which was essentially a mislabelling issue”.

The meat under investigation had been sold to Booths. The retailer confirmed a link to possible food fraud on 10 March, but said it was not itself under investigation by the NFCU and had been “working closely and co-operatively” with the unit since being made aware of potential food fraud issues in 2021.

Loscoe Chilled Foods has now shuttered its operation, with local news website Derbyshire Live reporting the business has laid off 120 staff, citing a letter to workers from its HR department that stated the business would close on 24 March with all roles made redundant.

It had taken the decision “as a result of customers withdrawing orders”, following the suspension of its BRCGS certificate, it added.

This had followed a police and Trading Standards raid on 22 March, in which three directors had been arrested and “released under investigation” in connection with the case, the NFCU told the website.

The Grocer has attempted to contact Loscoe Chilled Foods’ directors but with no response, while the company’s phone lines would not connect. The company’s website is also unresponsive. FRP Advisory said it could not currently share any further detail on its appointment as administrators of the business.

Read more: Why was beef fraud investigation not disclosed earlier?

It comes as fresh doubts have been raised this week around the integrity of meat supply chains after an investigation by Farmers Weekly uncovered an “industrial-scale” country of origin fraud at an unnamed meat supplier.

The investigation alleged that up until at least the end of 2020, a food manufacturer that could not be named for legal reasons was passing off huge quantities of foreign pork – sometimes tens of thousands of tonnes a week – as British.

The business was also accused by former employees of regularly “washing” hams that were visibly off, or mixing rotting pork with fresh product for further processing.

Other products such as ox tongues were not heat-treated properly, while meat was sometimes thawed out on the factory floor, posing a serious food safety risk, the farming title reported.

Meat supplied by the business ended up in products such as ready meals, quiches, sandwiches and other produce sold across major supermarkets, it added.

The directors of the company highlighted in the investigation were also accused of regularly deceiving auditors and falsifying records by sourcing a certain amount of British meat – in order for its paperwork to appear to be UK-sourced – and mixing it with cheaper imported product.

In response to the report, NFCU head Darren Davies said: “This is a complex and live investigation, and we are looking into all new lines of enquiry with our partner organisations, including any potential food hygiene breaches at the premises. If any evidence of a food safety risk is found, then necessary action will be taken.”

He added the unit would not name the supplier “while we painstakingly gather evidence to support our investigation so as not to prejudice any possible future action by the courts”.

Dismay from meat sector

The latest revelations prompted dismay from meat sector bodies, with British Meat Processors Association CEO Nick Allen saying the sector had “come a long way since Horsegate 10 years ago, but this latest issue highlights the fact that nobody should be complacent”.

Criminal activity would “always find new ways to beat the system”, he added. “This issue also highlights the need for the NFCU and industry to work more closely together and share intelligence with a greater emphasis on prevention rather than prosecution.”

“There also needs to be greater use of technology and data to provide checks and balances. It is in no one’s interest that we have stories like this hitting the headlines and it undermines all the good and responsible work that has gone on and continues to go on in the industry.”

Echoing Allen’s concerns but in far firmer language, the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers took aim at the FSA and NFCU’s handling of the investigation, and suggested the regulator had failed to protect the public and businesses by not sufficiently warning industry of its concerns.

“It is utterly reprehensible and totally inexcusable that food manufacturers and foodservice businesses, some of whom supply some of society’s most vulnerable consumers, were not alerted at any time to date by the NFCU as to there either being a possibility of labelling fraud or of a risk to public health.”

AIMS’ comments came as environment secretary Thérèse Coffey suggested in parliament today that there may now be a case for the FSA to no longer be a non-ministerial department and to be brought into Defra.

The trade body “welcomes the secretary of state’s view and looks forward to hearing the outcome of her discussions with the prime minister”, said operations director Norman Bagley.

“This is a live investigation which means we are looking into all new lines of inquiry with the relevant local authorities, including investigating potential food hygiene breaches,” said FSA CEO Emily Miles. 

This was alongside work undertaken to investigate food fraud, she added, but based on the investigation to date, there was no indication that food was unsafe or there was an increased risk to consumers, she stressed. 

“Criminal investigations take time and need to be done with due process and fairness. The FSA will work tirelessly on behalf of consumers to ensure that this criminal investigation is done to the highest possible standards,” Miles added. 

“I do want to emphasise at a time when cost pressures and other challenges mean the risks of food fraud might be increasing, it is vital everyone involved in the food chain works to ensure that food is safe and what it says it is.”