IN THE NEWS: On SEP 29, 2017
We sent two undercover journalists to work in the supermarket supply chain and found some alarming food safety practices.
“Have you just got out of prison?” the slaughterhouse foreman asks his new recruit.
It is a question seemingly posed in jest, but probably only to mask a genuine suspicion that a spell in clink is the most likely explanation for an odd situation.
The new boy stands out because he is a rare Briton reporting for stomach-churning, minimum-wage work at an intensive chicken processing plant in Devon, where his typical colleague is eastern European and speaks almost no English.
This reliance on immigrant labour is hardly a unique situation within UK industry, but it is a striking feature of 2 Sisters Food Group, a giant £3bn-revenue food processor that produces industrial quantities of the country’s favourite meat.
Every week a sizeable chunk of the company’s 23,000 workers – drawn from 36 different nationalities – churns out 6 million chickens, part of an operation that produces a third of all the poultry products consumed in the UK. Its products are found on the shelves of the major UK supermarket groups. This summer, two undercover reporters for the Guardian and ITV News were among its workforce.
One journalist spent 12 days working inside the 2 Sisters portioning and packing plant in West Bromwich, while the other was employed for three days at this slaughtering facility in the village of Willand, about 20 miles north of Exeter.
At Willand, chickens, still living but seemingly catatonic, arrive packed into green and yellow plastic latticed crates on the back of lorries, where they are routinely comforted by animal rights activists, wishing to say goodbye to “5,000 lost chicken souls”.
The doomed animals are then driven into the complex and gassed en masse, before being hung by their legs on metal brackets, to connect them to an elevated mechanical rail.
The rail transports these birds, blood dripping from their open beaks, to the next stage in the process, in a half-comical scene that partially resembles a theme park ride. Suddenly, the animals dip out of sight. They are inside a machine.
The next you see of the birds, they are still riding the rollercoaster, only now they are completely naked. They had entered an aluminium tunnel of perhaps 30 metres in length where jets of hot water stripped them of their feathers. By the time they emerge, the birds look almost like those you see on a supermarket shelf – only with feet intact, featuring swollen and splayed digits. Some chickens also emerge with heads still just about clinging on for the ride.
Some of the work is much more hands-on. As the chickens get plucked, the discarded feathers and heads drop below to a conveyor belt, travelling back in the opposite direction towards a human tasked with spotting unusual mounds in the layers of feathers.
If he spies a hump, that means a chicken has fallen from its hooks and is buried under the mass. Using his hands, the worker must burrow through the piles of soaking, stinking plummage and extract the stray dead bird – before clicking on a tally counter to record what he is throwing away.
Meanwhile, chicken heads also drop from the sides of the machine to the floor, where another minimum-wager sweeps or sprays them into a waste gulley.
This team works in temperatures hovering around the high 20s celsius. It feels even hotter when you are wearing a lab coat, a full-length plastic apron, wellington boots, rubber gloves and a hair net or beard snood – all of which protect you from most of the spraying blood, and lord knows what else.
But the smell and the memory of what you witness is more stubborn than the body fluids. For days afterwards, a piece of litter on the pavement looks, just for a split second, as though it is a chicken head. Almost any odour is redolent of the slaughterhouse. All of which might explain why 2 Sisters workers tend to trot out the refrain: “I have stopped eating chicken.”
That is fairly standard for those who work in the meat industry. But the disagreeable work does not end at the “killing department”, which is merely a staging post on these birds’ commercial journey.
The production line
2 Sisters Food Group has numerous slaughterhouses spanning the country from Coupar Angus in Perth and Kinross, down to Willand, all of which supply the company’s array of production lines preparing chicken for our supermarkets.
Crates of slaughtered birds are shipped to the processing facilities for portioning, packing and dispatch. These include production lines at Willand, where more overhead rails whisk freshly slaughtered chickens into chilled factories, where they are then released down aluminium chutes into square receptacles at the start of a series of production lines.
The first worker is tasked with grabbing chicken after chicken from the pile and thrusting them – sort of legs akimbo – on to the vertical probes that move steadily down the line. The bird is then transported towards a sequence of workers who include cutters – one hand holding a knife, the other sporting a chainmail glove – who portion off the breast, and skinners – some of whom can whip the skin off a chicken almost as easily as pulling a sock from a foot. The conveyors never seem to stop.
The first spot in the production line is, as many colleagues like to remind you, a simple job. But while the task of placing chickens on to moving probes is certainly less skilled than the cutting, it still has its challenges: the birds are slippery to pick up, the work is relentless and you are using muscles rarely called on in any other part of life.
These workers – the lowest of the low on the production line – will be handling some 6,000 chickens a day, assuming they do this job for a 10-hour shift. The result, at least for beginners, is intensely sore wrists and hands, coupled with sharp pains shooting up the forearms for days after a shift. It is totally shattering work.
There is a strange pressure to the job, too.
Put the chicken on the probe in a manner that displeases the first cutter and he will growl and curse at you. Miss a probe with your bird and a supervisor barks at you. Sometimes the novice gets told playfully: “Hey, baby, why you miss so much?” but, more often, it is simply a bawl of: “STOP MISSING!” So you stretch and strain to avoid both the rollickings and the slower, subtler humiliation of an empty probe chugging accusingly all the way down the line.
“This is no good job,” says a new starter, who still returns to the factory to do it all again the following day. And he is right, in perhaps more ways than he has yet to figure.
The chickens moving down this type of production line have been slaughtered the day before they are portioned – or, at least, that is the theory.
At the group’s production line in West Bromwich, our reporter saw evidence of the batch of fresh meat being topped up with older stock, with birds piled up in solid plastic baskets at the start of the line. The footage shows the labels on these crates stating that the contents have been slaughtered five days earlier.
A chicken crown on the floor is also seen being retrieved and thrown back onto the production line - despite the abundance of signs around the factory reminding workers of their training saying this is strictly against the company’s policy. But neither of the company warnings, or the old dates, seemed to matter: everything went on to the fresh line.
Then there is other chicken, which even some workers might never know is older than it seems.
Just off from the production lines is a cool storeroom, which is filled with pallets that are stacked about two metres high with baskets, each of which contains about 25 chicken crowns.
We saw evidence of how they stay there for a day or more before being edged out to the production line, by which time the birds’ histories can be rewritten.
It is here, out of sight of internal quality assurance inspectors – known as QAs – that the Guardian and ITV filmed an occasion of the seemingly non-negotiable date of the birds’ slaughter being switched. That results in the paperwork saying the product is fresher than it really is. The record of where the birds were slaughtered is also altered, leaving them almost impossible to trace and recall in the event of a food scare. This practice looks wrong to an untrained eye – and to a professional one too. Ask quality assurance experts if it is acceptable and you get a no-nonsense confirmation. “That is totally wrong,” says one.
Our reporter saw it at Site D, perhaps as part of a culture where fulfilling a client’s order trumps following the rules. “I previously worked at [another food company],” one worker explains. “There, if there was a QA around, everyone was alert. At 2 Sisters, there is no respect for QAs.”
One QA tells of being physically pushed out of the way when trying to prevent chicken being loaded on to a lorry for dispatch, and getting called away by a supervisor after putting crates of chicken on hold and finding the meat had then been packed when they returned.
The company says this view does not represent the real picture in the company as a whole. It said of its 33 quality assurance staff in West Bromwich: “2SFG has reviewed its records for Site D from the previous twelve months and there are no complaints from any Quality Assurance staff resembling those cited.”
There certainly are diligent QAs who succeed in catching problems. They stop chicken portions from being dispatched when the packaging is damaged or the meat looks to be of poor quality. The supermarkets’ own quality departments, based in their distribution centres, also send packets back to 2 Sisters plants. That does not mean the meat is unfit to eat, so it does not always stay back in the plant for long.
“Chicken comes back to the factory and we are asked to open the packets, remove the portions and place them into the large plastic trays that are used to move chicken about the factory,” says one worker. Meanwhile, the sight of chicken already packed for the supermarket being reopened next to the production line and tossed back on to the fresh conveyor belt is unremarkable. It might have been sent back by internal 2 Sisters quality staff, or a supermarket distribution centre, but to a shop floor worker it looks all the same. “Sometimes, if shop no selling, sending back, open again,” explains one operative.
2 Sisters said that it takes “these allegations extremely seriously” and that it had launched an investigation. It said that it had not been given enough information or time to investigate the evidence properly but it said its West Bromwich facility had received nine audits, five of which were unannounced, in the months of July and August alone.
It added: “Hygiene and food safety will always be the number one priority within the business, and they remain at its very core”.
Other times, chicken already packaged for one supermarket is reopened and mixed with pieces being packed for a rival. The undercover footage shot by the Guardian and ITV captures one such instance, with the drumsticks at the end of the line showing up in packets saying they have come from Tesco’s Willow Farms.
Willow Farms is the bucolic invention of Tesco’s promotional department, but if the branding feels contrived, the marketing goes further.
Willow Farms chicken is billed as being “reared exclusively for Tesco” on the grocer’s website, which suggest that the supermarket group is unaware. Meanwhile 2 Sisters explains it thus: “The Willow Farms brand is exclusive to Tesco, but the raw material is not. 2SFG meets the raw materials specifications for the Willow Farms brand.”
All of which ties in with another common phrase among the 2 Sisters workforce.
“It’s all the same chicken,” they say, again and again. “It’s all the same chicken.”