Chicken Tonight? Maybe Not …

Back in the mists of time, I ran a potato company that was part of a somewhat larger food group. (I should stress this was not Mars, where I spent the first part of my career.) This fairly small operation was associated with a farmers’ co-operative and we packed potatoes in bags for many supermarket chains, produced other formats such as trays of baking potatoes, as well as supplying bulk potatoes to crisp manufacturers and the like.

That firm has long since disappeared, so I can now admit a dirty secret. Our factory manager did occasionally get a lorry load of potatoes returned from a retail customer (let’s call then Marks and Sainsbury), because they found a few green potatoes in the first few bags they checked on our lorry. IT was not a very scientific quality procedure, in all honesty.

So, what did we do? It was stupid really to reject or throw away 20 tonnes of potatoes based on a few bags, so we re-packed the lorries, with the pallets and bags moved around a bit, and sent it back to the customer. We might take off a pallet if it looked particularly dodgy, and as a last resort, we would have to open the bags and re-pack the potatoes to get a new “best before” date on the bags.

All harmless, if not very ethical, given we are talking potatoes. But if we are talking similar actions in the context of raw chicken, it really is quite worrying to say the least.

Accusations of re-packing and misleading best-before dates were made last week  in the undercover investigation into the 2 Sisters Food Group,  the UK’s largest chicken processing firm, by the Guardian newspaper and ITV.  The firm is accused of putting incorrect best-before dates on products, unhygienic practices and “fiddling” slaughter dates to extend shelf life.

It’s enough to make you a vegetarian really. But yet again, it raises questions of quality control and provenance in our food supply chains. And the report found that chicken drumsticks allegedly rejected by Lidl were repacked for Tesco, branded as “Tesco Willow Farm chicken”.  In a statement Schillings, 2 Sisters’s legal advisers, told the Guardian: “2SFG meets the raw materials specifications for the Willow Farms brand.”

But now, the UK’s biggest retailer has removed the claim that Willow Farm chicken is “reared exclusively for Tesco” from its website - well, that’s reassuring, isn’t it. But in case we had any doubts, we can see quite clearly what the brand value really is for “Willow Farm”. Basically, this is a nonsense made-up farm name for cheap meat, designed to try and communicate some spurious sense of provenance to the consumer.

I know from experience of the food industry that inspections, even if they are random, are not the answer to assurance of supplier quality. But it would be interesting to know what the supermarkets were doing to check this supplier. From what we have read, there seems to have been a regular regime of inspection, but it clearly has not stopped these issues occurring.

There is also the nagging feeling that again, our obsession with driving down price in many market sectors seems to lead inevitably to this sort of behaviour. Chicken is now the ubiquitous cheap meat; so should we blame the retail buying profession – and their bosses – for putting such pressure on suppliers that corners will inevitably be cut? Or is it our fault as consumers for demanding ever lower prices?

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