Asda accused of risking food hygiene to cut costs

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The Independent Online

Asda is so keen to fulfil its advertising slogan of providing "more for less" that it cuts corners and puts food hygiene at risk, supermarket employees say.

The US-owned company, which recently paid a reported £3.5m to the footballer Wayne Rooney and his fiancée Coleen McLoughlin to become the faces of Asda, has allowed frozen products to stand in the open air for up to two hours after they had been delivered to stores, it was alleged. The supermarket chain insists it applies the highest standards and that it has invested heavily in ensuring it leads the industry in dealing with chilled and frozen food.

Employees' representatives have claimed that constant pressure to cut costs has taken its toll. Company policies are sometimes ignored because there are not enough employees to carry them out, it is alleged.

A GMB shop steward has made an official complaint to the company that frozen and chilled food was allegedly left out at the Gateshead store for six hours on 26 May. He claimed he saw the food at 5pm and that shop staff had shown him a log revealing that it had been delivered at 11am.

An Asda spokeswoman said the allegations were being investigated, but said they had not been raised until 12 days after the incident. Management had not been given the full details, but the company was confident that any product left out for that time would be treated as waste in line with procedures.

Asda admits that shopfloor employees have less time to devote to health and safety, but says senior staff have been given increased responsibility to raise health and hygiene standards and to increase awareness.

The GMB general union claims that "checkers" at warehouses who monitor the dates and rotation of stock, have also been axed and that the quality of training on food hygiene and trading standards have been cut.

Asda contends that each warehouse has appointed a person qualified in occupational safety, and a number of health and safety hygiene co-ordinators working towards recognised qualifications. In stores, managers were supported by two new positions with dedicated health and hygiene responsibilities.

Asda says training for employees in its supermarkets has been enhanced and that employees are regularly reminded of the importance of health and safety.

Asda staff and their representatives claim that since the group was bought by Wal-Mart, the American stores group, the company has been forced into a position where hygiene standards are under pressure.

The accusations emerged after an ICM poll for War on Want, a UK-based charity, found that 56 per cent of shoppers believed the low prices by supermarkets generally led to the exploitation of suppliers and staff. Asda is among the big supermarkets to be referred to the Competition Commission for investigation over pricing and buying power.

The allegations against Asda come after the release of a film on Wal-Mart - The High Price of Low Cost. The world's biggest retailer is accused of forcing smaller competitors out of business, paying its employees so badly they have to claim welfare payments and conducting witch hunts against anyone who joins a union.

Employees' representatives claim that the so-called "Asda price" boasted by its British subsidiary, which is among the lowest supermarket prices in Britain, also comes at a high cost.

Asda-Walmart is facing a strike ballot among warehouse workers over union recognition after an agreement on negotiating rights fell apart.

Drivers working in Asda depots in the North-west allege that frozen and "chilled" food delivered to stores was sometimes left out for up to two hours before being placed in refrigerators.

Giovanna Holt, a senior GMB organiser who worked at Asda for 10 years and keeps in daily contact with the group's employees, says it is "physically impossible" to unload trolleys in the 20 minutes prescribed in Asda's "2006 Formula for Change" document.

Asda says it has installed more refrigerated space in the back of stores and that even the loading bays at distribution centres were now "giant fridges". All deliveries were checked for temperature and any produce over 5C was rejected.

A spokeswoman for Asda said the company had never spent more money on training, and that there had been no reduction in checking goods. Procedures were now more effective. Management's audit of its standards were regularly spot-checked by an outside consultant.

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