The other week I’d plonked myself down in front of the telly and was indulging in a spot of channel-hopping, when I chanced upon the BBC’s Whistleblower programme featuring Tesco and Sainsbury. For those of you who didn’t see it, two reporters went undercover - one at a Tesco’s and the other at a Sainsbury’s, to work on the fresh fish and meat counters. Neither of them had any previous experience but both blagged their way into the jobs.
The documentary set out to be an exposé of food safety standards at these two hypers and it was mainly a catalogue of examples where staff practices varied enormously from company policy. The reporters merely acted dumb and kept asking their immediate superiors for help with any problems they encountered.
They said things like "That display of fish has passed its sell-by date," and were told: "Give it a quick smell and if it seems alright just extend the date by a few days." Or "That display doesn’t have a sell-by date," and were told "It looks okay so let’s give it a week." Or they commented: "This mince seems to be coming out of the mincer looking like it has started to cook," and the reply was "No problem, we’ll just split off the really brown bits and put the rest on display."
and the queries went on: "This ham is past its date and is going hard." "Don’t worry," they were told, "Just shave the cut end down a bit and the rest will look fine."
Best of all was the blocked drain. It seemed that the best tool for removing the cover was the fish filleting knife, and of course there was no need to wipe it before serving the next customer. Chuck in a healthy quota of fictitious temperature chart readings and you’re probably beginning to get the picture.
Perhaps the most illuminating piece was the Tesco department manager who complained of the relentless pressure to achieve targets. He seemed to imply that this could only be done by cutting a few corners with the wastage budget and always being under-staffed.
Now before we all get too gleeful about this bad publicity for our enemies - I assume we do all consider the hypers our enemies, although if it wasn’t for the weekly shop we wouldn’t get the top-up shop - there were a few elements of the programme that struck a chord. Being that desperate for staff that you take on anyone who looks half decent, not checking references before employing because you need them to start immediately, rushing through the training, leaving people to work on their own without sufficient experience, not probing too deeply about those check sheets that have all been ticked off (well, they’re only really there to cover our own backs in case something goes wrong) and not actually checking for yourself whether all those company policies and procedures bear any relationship to what really goes on. Oops!!
Of course the one big difference between the hypers and us is that they are coming at it from a position of making substantial profits and they should never have to countenance single manning.
Both companies were asked for their comments. Sainsbury was very apologetic, protesting how its customers’ health was paramount and promising to investigate fully and tighten up on compliance. But Tesco’s response seemed quite arrogant. The company said the incidents shown were totally unrepresentative of how it operates.
It seems the more powerful and successful a company becomes the greater the tendency to brush off criticism and the more fanatical the pressure to increase return on capital at all costs. These two qualities brought the pre-Rose M&S to its knees and have seriously damaged Browne’s legacy at BP.
No company can afford to believe its own PR, whether it be Tesco... or a humble petrol retailer!