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Bakery firm facing probe over serious health and safety failings that put workers lives at risk

More than 30 firefighters were needed to tackle a blaze at Honeytop's factory after one of the ovens used for baking naan breads caught fire

One of Britain’s biggest bakery firms is facing a probe by the fire service and government regulators after an undercover investigation revealing serious health and safety failings putting the lives of workers at risk.

Honeytop Speciality Foods, which employs hundreds of people at its factory in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, was recently praised by Prime Minister David Cameron for its plans to create dozens of new jobs.

But in contrast to the company’s boasts on its website that: “We put the health and safety of our team at the core of our business,” an investigation at its factory has discovered not only was a fire exit blocked, but signs for the exit were obscured by the production line. And new workers were not given any fire drill training – despite there being three fires at the factory between May and June this year - one of which saw more than 30 firefighters from Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service tackle a blaze at the factory after one of the ovens used for baking naan breads had caught fire.

Honeytop supplies all Britain’s major supermarkets with everything from pizza bases and naan breads to tortilla wraps.

It features in a new documentary, Supermarkets: The Real Price of Cheap Food, being broadcast tomorrow evening on Channel 4, which looks at the supermarket supply chain and the working conditions of those involved in it.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service said: “All three incidents involved fires in industrial ovens on the production line.... On each occasion all staff evacuated safely and all fires have been attributed to the same cause, a build-up of debris from production.”

They added: “Throughout this time, the Service has been dealing with the company, which has now instigated a more stringent regime of cleaning in these particular areas. We will be interested in the findings of the documentary, and will take any appropriate action.”

And it is not just fire safety which is in question at the factory. Secret filming shows workers risking serious injury – with a man clambering onto a conveyor belt and climbing into a machine to keep the production lines running. Asked if it is safe, a worker says: “No, no its not, but if we don’t do it, no-one else will. It’ll just be like that for ever.”

An undercover reporter working at the factory was not given any safety training. Despite signs telling workers to wear ear protectors and hard hats, the reporter had not been given any. And the documentary shows workers handing food with their bare hands – in breach of food hygiene guidelines.

While the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) currently “has no open investigation or complaint” against the company, an HSE spokesperson said: “We have not seen the footage from Channel 4’s investigation but if they would like to send it to us we take any complaints of this nature seriously.” They added: “If any of the employees wish to make a complaint to HSE this can be done anonymously.”

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is already taking action. A spokesperson for the FSA said last night: “The Food Standards Agency will pass the details to the relevant local authority responsible for enforcing controls in this type of premises, and will ask them to follow-up with the business to ensure they are complying with food hygiene regulations.”

Amanda Callaghan, director of corporate affairs, British Retail Consortium, whose members include the major supermarkets supplied by Honeytop, said: “Our members take their responsibilities extremely seriously and insist on the highest standards for food safety and hygiene from their suppliers. We are working with the Government to help eradicate poor practice in working conditions in food and other supply chains and have been asked by Government to produce recommendations on the steps that can be taken towards this.”

Honeytop is to mount an internal review of how it operates, in the make of the findings. In a statement, a spokesperson for the company said: “We take our responsibilities for the health and safety of our employees, customers and consumers very seriously. We are committed to producing the highest quality foods, in a safe and hygienic working environment operating at the highest national and international standard. All employees and agency workers are fully trained and following this investigation we will review our processes to ensure that this is always the case.”

Yet this is just the latest in a series of controversies which have embroiled Honeytop in recent years. An investigation by the HSE led to it being fined more than £9,000 in 2012 for breaking health and safety laws. Workers at its factory had been exposed to dangerous levels of flour dust, which can cause occupational asthma, up to six times the legal limit. The company had been warned about the levels five years previously but failed to act. There were also insufficient measures in place to separate workers from moving vehicles, and failure to control risks to workers from lifting heavy items. And in June 2011, six illegal immigrants were arrested after a raid by around 100 police and UK Border Agency officials at the company’s factory in Dunstable.