Pioneer's £300,000 legal bill for 'alarming' food contamination blunders

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Graham, left and David Jenkins, of Pioneer, leaving Carlisle court
Graham, left and David Jenkins, of Pioneer, leaving Carlisle court

One of Cumbria’s best known food firms has been fined £275,000 for a string of “alarming” food hygiene offences.

Pioneer, which employs more than 300 people and last year had a turnover of more than £37 million, admitted 12 food hygiene offences linked to cooked meat contaminated with listeria.

Carlisle City Council’s environmental health staff were alerted to the failings at the Rosehill based firm’s cooked meat operation last October, including a failure to recall the produce involved despite tests showing contamination as long ago as January last year.

Listeria bacteria can cause listeriosis, a disease with fatality rates of up to 40 per cent, particularly among the young, elderly, or already sick.

Astonishingly, commercial director Barry Garrett failed to tell fellow directors of PFD (Carlisle) Limited, David and Graham Jenkins, about those results, the court heard.

Prosecuting barrister Tim Pole said the cooked meat department was plagued by sloppy hygiene.

Environmental health staff got a call on October 2, 2015, from a technical manager at Pioneer, who said an internal sampling programme had found listeria in some cooked beef. The meat had been isolated but detailed test results were not available until October 23.

“The company received notification of the positive sample on October 19, 2015 and, given the danger of the bacteria that was present, it was alarming that there appears to have been some delay in notifying Environmental Health,” said Mr Pole. “It further became apparent that, despite the positive sample, the company had not taken any steps to withdraw [recall] the product from the market.”

The company directors decided against an immediate withdrawal of the product, believing this would be “too big a task”, said the lawyer.

Yet the 123 customers supplied with the beef included people who were particularly at risk from listeria – 16 schools, three major hospitals, and residential care businesses, said Mr Pole. Environmental health officials urged an immediate withdrawal of the product, prioritising vulnerable groups.

The listeria in the beef was present at 30 times the permitted level. Investigators visited the factory on October 26, finding that food hygiene training records were not up to date – a failing one worker put down to being “under resourced”.

During visits to the cooked meat department, Carlisle City Council Environmental Health inspectors found:

  • a dirty table in the high-risk area changing facility
  • a wash basin with no soap, towels or water
  • alarming hygiene breaches in the refrigerator, including sliced ham that was cooked 34 days previously
  • blood-stained clothing from the raw meat area in the cooked meat changing facility
  • undercooked turkey joints left on a dirty rack
  • areas of wall-kerbing covered in black mould

On October 26, the investigators found staff did not use disposable gloves but instead wore cotton ones, with a worker taking them home to wash each day. The following day it was discovered that some suspect meat the firm had agreed to surrender was being put through a mincer to turn it into pet food.

Mr Pole said: “The officer ordered that the mincer be stopped immediately. The production of pet food requires a particular licence which the company did not hold.

“It was particularly alarming that the mincers being used were the same mincers that were used to mince meat for human consumption.”

Mr Garrett said the firm had been producing the pet food every few months for a customer who had dogs.

By October 28, the Royal Lancaster Infirmary had confirmed that a sample of cooked sliced turkey supplied by Pioneer had tested positive for listeria. The turkey was produced as the same time as the contaminated beef.

The court also heard about faulty drains causing water from raw meat areas to back up into the cooked meat area. The council issued a notice, ordering a halt to cooked meat production until the department was cleaned and disinfected. The investigation then revealed testing within the firm had yielded positive results for listeria in cooked pork in January 2015, in cooked chicken the following month and in cooked ham in April. Asked what action the company took, an employee said she had told Mr Garrett, who had simply told her to test further samples.

Chris Toms, for PFD (Carlisle) Ltd, said that the two directors in court – David and Graham Jenkins – were “more than a little angry” about the whole business and had been unaware of the positive listeria results for their cooked meat products in early 2015.

“It was not discussed at board level and they were not aware that it was going on,” said Mr Toms. “It was something being done by the commercial director.”

Mr Toms said that standards in the department – a relatively small part of the business – had slipped and become totally inadequate. When Graham Jenkins was told about the positive listeria test result in October his immediate reaction was to inform Environmental Health, said Mr Toms. The company had never been in this situation before but had now ceased production of cooked meats altogether.

Mr Toms added: “Pioneer Foods is a business which has been built up in this area over 100 years and it relies on its good name. In my dealings with the directors it’s been made clear that they are deeply shocked by this. One director told me he had spent completely sleepless nights, waiting to hear if anybody had fallen ill. But there’s no evidence anybody has fallen ill.”

The directors utterly refuted the suggestion that the problems resulted from a desire to save money.

The commercial director in post at the time was now no longer with the company.

Judge Gerald Chalk ordered that the firm should pay the prosecution costs of £28,907.

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