The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has dropped criminal action against meat supplier Russell Hume because of a “technical legal error” made during the investigation.

The investigation into the meat supplier began in January 2018 because of food hygiene issues. The firm went into administration with up to 300 jobs lost shortly afterward. At the time, Russell Hume officials said the regulator’s actions had been “out of proportion to the concerns identified.”

Action followed a routine unannounced inspection in January 2018 at Russell Hume’s Birmingham factory, but subsequent investigations at five other sites showed “significant and systemic” problems with inadequate food safety management systems, according to the FSA. A total of 400 tons of meat were destroyed because of concerns about out-of-date product being relabeled.

In October 2020, the National Food Crime Unit (NFCU) reviewed the investigation, called Operation Orchid, and raised concerns because of a technical legal error in the way it was conducted during the early stages in 2018. Following legal advice, the FSA decided not to pursue further action against the directors of Russell Hume.

Difficult decision to drop case
The FSA said it has since enhanced investigative capabilities at NFCU and improved internal systems and processes to reduce the chance of a similar error in future inquiries.

“We’ve made quite a difficult decision to take no further action against the people who were under investigation in relation to fraud at Russell Hume,” said Emily Miles, the FSA’s chief executive during a Business Committee meeting.

“Russell Hume knowingly misled their customers in the way they labeled meat in respect of traceability and shelf life and we found that in 2018 and took a number of steps then to ensure meat was destroyed.

“We had been pursuing a criminal investigation but we made a technical legal error in the way the investigation was conducted in its early stages and we’ve only discovered recently that means we are not able to pursue the case. A contributory factor to that was we don’t have access to Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) powers, it is not the only reason we made the error, but it would have made a difference.”

An FSA spokesperson said the error means it was no longer in the taxpayers’ interests to continue with the investigation.

“We stand by the proportionate action we took when serious and widespread food safety problems were found at Russell Hume in 2018. This involved stopping production at their sites and disposing of a large amount of meat that was out of date and had been mislabeled.”

Miles said the agency is continuing to make the case to government ministers for PACE powers as the current situation is slowing down investigations.

“When we need to arrest a suspect or interview them under caution we have to borrow a constable from a police force. It means we have to liaise with them, we have to persuade them to allocate resources to this case and assist us. It is problematic we don’t have these powers,” she said.

“It requires primary legislation, so we are going to need the cabinet to agree to this and we are going to need to find a bill which has an appropriate scope so we can add a clause to it. That is our next objective. I am hoping with the arrival of Susan as our new chair we can press the case again in some of her introductory meetings.”

Professor Susan Jebb has been named as the agency’s new chair effective July 1 for three years.

Other investigations
Miles also mentioned two other NFCU-led operations, shellfish and classification of harvesting areas and the vet shortage.

Operation Atlas concerns the supply of 2,4 Dinitrophenol (DNP), controlled drugs (steroids) and prescription only medicines. A suspect has been arrested and confessed, under caution, to all offenses during an interview. Operation Aspen is looking into a series of European distribution frauds which resulted in 18 tons of fraudulently obtained Portuguese chicken being recovered.

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