Top meat company in hygiene scandal

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The Independent Online
One of Britain's leading meat companies, which supplied Buckingham Palace and leading London restaurants, had mould growing on pipes at its factory, sterilising equipment that did not work and broke government hygiene regulations.

The shocking conditions at G G Baxter's plant at Colnbrook, near Slough, are revealed in internal company documents supplied to the Independent. They raise serious questions about the standards behind the scenes in Britain's meat industry, still reeling from the BSE scare, and the efficiency of the environmental health inspection system.

G G Baxter, founded in 1836, holds two Royal warrants, for supplying pork sausages to The Queen and The Queen Mother. As well as royalty, customers at the time the internal checks were carried out also included Planet Hollywood, the Hard Rock, the Cafe Flo, Cafe Rouge and Cafe Pelican chains and the corporate dining-rooms of James Capel, Kleinwort Benson, Chase Manhattan, Texaco, Bafta and Express Newspapers. Barristers at the Inner Temple ate the firm's products, as did underwriters at Lloyd's of London. It has never been suggested that any of these companies or organisations accepted sub-standard meat from G G Baxter or were aware of the internal reports.

The papers passed to the Independent are headed "Technical Department Audit" and cover the period from March to October 1994. In March that year, Margaret Finn, G G Baxter's technical manager, carried out her weekly inspection of the Colnbrook plant. Her report, which was circulated among senior staff, found the vacuum-packaging machine is "very dirty and needs washing". The tenderising machine was also "not being cleaned properly". Underneath the dicing machine there was "meat debris which is rotten." Worse was to come in the frozen department with "products with no identification, no batch-coding". This, wrote Miss Finn, "has to be sorted out as soon as possible".

At the end of her report, dated 19 April, Miss Finn added a health warning: "On a number of occasions products have been left to temper out in the downstairs production office beside a heater on one side and a knife grinder on the other. This practice cannot continue, as it is every dangerous and breaks all current food regulations."

The internal report continued: "An alternative must be found to solve this problem or risk an outbreak which could severely damage the reputation of G G Baxter's."

Nick Nawell, Slough's Area Environmental Health Officer, said the firm was inspected at yearly to 18-monthly intervals. Mr Nawell said the reports read over to him by the Independent "were out of keeping with the minimum standards of food safety and hygiene".

In August 1994 the firm was taken over by Hillsdown, the giant food group chaired by Sir John Nott, a former government minister.

It now forms part of Fairfax Meadow Farms, Hillsdown's meat susbsidiary.

Andrew Hunter, a Hillsdown spokesman, stressed yesterday that since buying the company, changes had been made and standards improved.

"A lot of things have changed," said Mr Hunter, "the management has totally changed, the staff have changed." Hillsdown, he said, carry out daily hygiene checks and customers can visit its premises whenever they like.