Source: The Guardian
Date: 27 March 2004

Food watchdogs check sell-by date 'fiddle' on meat

Felicity Lawrence,
consumer affairs correspondent

The Food Standards Agency is to investigate claims that fresh meat being sold in supermarkets may be up to 20 days old. An investigation by Which? magazine has found that poultry is being repackaged with new use-by dates and sold as fresh.

A source in the government inspection service, the Meat Hygiene Service, has told the magazine that at least one chicken processing plant was repackaging and redating raw chicken, sometimes several times, before passing it off as fresh meat.

The trade union for meat inspectors, Unison, warned two years ago that redating chicken was common practice in slaughterhouses.

The British Poultry Council denied the allegations, and said Which? was repeating unsubstantiated comments from an anonymous meat inspector about one poultry processing plant.

Trading standards lead officer for food Phil Thomas confirmed that repacking and redating of meat and dairy produce did take place. "If a factory is packing its own meat and deciding the use-by date, it can rewrap food that is coming to the end of its use-by date and change the date."

The consumer watchdog magazine says this nullifies use-by dates on packs. If a factory has a surplus at the end of one day, it can simply put a new use-by date on the pack and send it out the next.

It is concerned that the practice of redating surpluses at the end of the day could push the boundaries of quality and safety. The extension of use-by dates is particularly worrying with poultry, given that half of chicken sold by British retailers has been found in government surveys to be contami nated with the food poisoning bug campylobacter.

Supermarkets told Which? magazine that the time between slaughter and use-by date was seven to nine days, but an industry insider has said that in some cases it was more than double that. "Once processing plants begin to re-date chicken, they quickly lose control of it," the source said. The result could be that chicken was re-dated day after day, with no records being kept.

Part of the problem arises from today's system of "just-in-time" ordering. Retailers frequently change the volume of their orders to processors at very short notice. They use bar code scanning at their tills to tell them how much they have sold and therefore need to restock for the next day.

The FSA said that manufacturers had a legal duty to produce chicken "that is safe to eat - and this includes applying accurate use-by dates."

Any producer who extended the use-by date on chicken, so that it was unfit by the time it reached the consumer, would be liable to prosecution under the Food Safety Act.

David Statham, the FSA's director of enforcement and food standards, said: "If these practices were going on, they would be unacceptable. We are initiating an immediate investigation into these allegations."

Enforcement of use-by dates in fact falls to trading standards officers. The law is complex - the use-by dates on labels only acquire legal status once they have been packed for the end consumer, in other words usually when they reach the supermarket shelves. Manufacturers decide themselves what use-by date is appropriate. It is an offence however for shops to alter use-by dates or sell food which has passed its use-by date.

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