The Beef and the Bull

Selling rotten meat: profitable scam or an attempt to reduce waste?

Photograph by Petras Gagilas
Petras Gagilas / CC BY-SA 2.0

Before there was horsemeat in our burgers, there was Maggot Pete, perhaps one of the most notorious meat fraudsters in recent UK history. Peter Roberts was a businessman whose first enterprise was a maggot farm, where he earned his unfortunate nickname. In search of bigger profits, Roberts opened a poultry slaughterhouse, Denby Poultry Products, located in Derbyshire, England. He began using the waste products from his slaughterhouse legally in processed pet food to increase the profitability of his business. But he recognised an even more lucrative business opportunity: redirecting waste products back into the human food market.

As well as collecting low-risk waste animals not fit for human consumption, mostly for aesthetic reasons, Roberts began purchasing diseased and contaminated poultry from slaughterhouses. Some of these animals had died of unknown causes and could be carrying transmissible diseases. The slaughterhouses had been paying about $126 (all figures US) per tonne to have these high-risk waste products taken away and destroyed, so when Roberts started offering $39 per tonne to relieve them of the waste, it was an easy decision. Workers in Roberts’s factory would then trim away the undesirable parts, wash the chicken with bleach to remove slimy layers and discolouring, and finally package it up for sale to hospitals, schools, restaurants and leading supermarkets. Between 1995 and 2001, Roberts and his team turned just under half a million kilos of condemned poultry out into the human food supply and built up a client base of around 600 customers. The operation earned the ringleaders a combined estimated total of $1.5 million over the six years.

In 2000, an anonymous tip led environmental health officers in Derbyshire, UK, to begin investigating Denby Poultry Products. By 2001, they had enough evidence to raid the premises, where they found skips filled with green decaying poultry and a large pool of raw sewage in the middle of the processing plant. The investigation lasted over two years and involved more than 100 police officers and fifty local authority environmental health officers. The investigators unravelled the threads that connected Denby Poultry Products to over 1,000 other food manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers around the country. They found fraudulent European health stamps, used to trace animal origin food products in the EU, which had been used to stamp the condemned chicken. Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Kwik Save, and others began to recall potentially contaminated products—a process that cost the industry about $1.5 million.

Six people were convicted in 2003. In addition to Roberts, two former managers and an occasional worker at Denby Poultry were given jail sentences, as well as two people that worked at MK Poultry, which is a food processor in Northampton that supplied the meat to retailers and added the European health stamp. Roberts was sentenced to six years in prison, but fled the country before the trial was over.

In 2007, Maggot Pete was found soaking up the sun in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which conveniently has no extradition treaty with the UK.

Perhaps the $686,923 he had personally made on the scam hadn’t quite been enough to sustain the family lifestyle, or perhaps his wife, Shari Roberts, just needed to get out of the house, but whatever the reason, Mrs. Roberts was found working in the local estate agent. It was ultimately through her that Roberts was found. Despite the lack of an extradition treaty, Roberts arrived at Stansted airport within a month of being found, and shortly thereafter he appeared at Derby Crown Court, where he received his sentence. As well as his six-year term, Roberts was ordered to pay back more than $263,600, which was the estimated amount left from his profits. Roberts certainly wasn’t the first to see this opportunity for repurposing meat. Other operations even bigger than Maggot Pete’s have come before and since, but whether it was due to his catchy nickname or his flight to Cyprus, Roberts’s scam became one of the more notorious. In 1995, about the same time Roberts was starting his operation, Rotherham Council began investigating a secret operation at Wells By-Products factory in Darlton, Nottinghamshire. The Darlton gang was using the same business plan: to turn condemned poultry destined for pet food back out into the human food supply. In a three-year period, they sold more than one million kilograms of rotten chicken and turkey to retailers and distributors across the UK. Those involved made about $3 million, while the investigation cost Rotherham Council half a million.

Luckily, neither of these poultry scams resulted in anyone becoming ill—despite some of this meat being sold on to institutions caring for some of the most vulnerable people in society, namely hospitals and schools. One can’t help but think that had a few people become ill as a direct result of these scams, the off enders might have received tougher penalties. But just how unusual is it?

If we go back to the mid-nineteenth century, the sale of putrid meat was a weekly event. In Britain, shops weren’t allowed to sell anything on a Sunday and all shops had to close by midnight on Saturday. Therefore, anything that wasn’t going to keep until Monday was sold off at a discounted price. Saturday afternoon was also when many workmen received their weekly wages. The marrying of cheap food and money in the pocket resulted in the Saturday-night shopping phenomenon, where the working class would do their buying between 10 p.m. and midnight, when their money went a lot further. Shopping by candlelight also meant that the merchants could get away with things they couldn’t have during the light of day.

A layer of fresh fat would be added to rotting meat to make it appear fresh. The meat the working class was buying on Saturday night was already past its “use by” date before they bought it, let alone got it home and cooked it for the Sunday roast. But having paid for it, people felt obliged to cook it anyway, hoping for the best. There were meat inspectors on the hunt for tainted meat in these Saturday-night markets—in fact, it was one of the few types of food being policed at the time. The inspectors would hand out fines and confiscate tainted products. They would take diseased animals from the markets and hand them to the police for destruction—sometimes quite publicly. Yet, despite their efforts, the sale of rancid meat continued. Poor people were looking for cheap meat; they knew the deals were too good to be true, but it was all they could afford, and sellers were looking to offload products that were past their prime. Criminals and victims were in some sort of odd unspoken collaboration.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the release of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle awakened Americans to the state of their meat processing. Sinclair s intention had been to draw the nation’s attention to the exploitation of US immigrants through the eyes of his main character, Jurgis, a Lithuanian man living and working in the stockyards of Chicago. However, it was the grotesque conditions in which meat was being processed that truly revolted the nation. Sinclair’s evocative descriptions of mouldy white sausages, piles of meat covered in rat droppings, and even the rats themselves being swept into the hoppers where sausages were being churned out for home consumption were disturbing. The imagery is enough to convert even the most dedicated carnivore into a vegetarian. President Theodore Roosevelt, understanding very well the power of the meat and packing industries, sent two commissioners, Charles P. Neill and James Bronson Reynolds, to investigate whether Sinclair’s descriptions were purely an author’s creative licence. The commissioners confirmed all Sinclair’s claims, except for one: apparently it was an exaggeration that workmen were falling into the vats and being rendered into pure leaf lard (the highest grade of lard). Sinclair’s novel and the subsequent report from Neill and Reynolds were in part responsible for the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906, which would help prevent adulterated or misbranded meat and meat products from being sold as food, and would try to raise the sanitary conditions of slaughterhouses and meat processing plants. Sinclair later stated, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”

History suggests that people like Maggot Pete and his conspirators are simply carrying on an age-old tradition of repurposing old food. Condemned meat continually makes its way back into the human food chain and no country seems to be immune. In 2006, a seventy-four-year-old German meat distributor died by suicide when he was linked to laundering expired meat back into the food chain. Police impounded more than 150 tonnes of expired meat—some more than four years out of date from the company. In the summer of 2014, the fast food chain McDonald’s found itself embroiled in a tainted meat scandal. Shanghai Husi Food Co. was inspected after an undercover journalist exposed unhygienic handling of meat.

The investigation revealed expired beef and chicken products being processed and repackaged with new expiration dates. The company supplies chicken and beef products to McDonald’s, Papa John’s, Burger King, Starbucks, KFC, and Pizza Hut in China as well as about 20 percent of McDonald’s products in Japan. The Japanese branches of the fast food giant stopped importing their meat from China and took the opportunity to introduce a tofu and fish version of the McNugget. So far, Canadians seem to have escaped such scandal. However, with planned decreases in resources for Canada’s Food Safety Program, and successful restaurant chains, such as Earls, opting for longer supply chains by sourcing their meat from below the border, who knows? Low risk and opportunity undoubtedly tip the scales in favour of the fraudsters.

Is it possible to view these scams as an attempt to reduce waste? We’ve all done it on a small scale, whether our motives were to avoid wasting food or to avoid wasting money. We’ve pulled out that piece of meat from the fridge, looked at the “use by” date and sighed. Then, we have cautiously opened up the package and had a sniff. Barring no ill odours, we may poke and prod the meat with our fingers, maybe even lift it out of the packaging and take a good 360-degree view. After another glance at the label and some mental maths to count back the days, we make a decision either way—bin it or eat it. If it’s the latter, we probably cook the hell out of it, killing all signs of potential life and any flavour along with it. Then, we spend the next twenty-four hours in a heightened awareness of all our bodily functions.

It’s hard to say how many people get sick each year from eating expired meat as publicly available statistics do not separate illness as a result of eating expired meat from something like bad hygiene or insufficient cooking.

The FDA in the US and the FSA in the UK are more concerned about tracking the prevalence of infectious agents (bacterial, viral, chemical and parasitic), whether it’s Salmonella or Listeria, and identifying new and particularly virulent strains of bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7. Whether the bacteria is there because the food wasn’t cooked correctly, or because of cross-contamination between cooked food and uncooked food, or because of an employee’s poor washroom habits, is of slightly less concern than what kind of bacteria it is, how widespread it is and how the illness can be contained. It boils down to a matter of risk management. US outbreak statistics from 1998 to 2008 show that 22 percent of foodborne illnesses were attributed to meat and poultry. Just as a comparison, vegetables were responsible for 34.2 percent and shellfish a mere 3.4 percent. Some of that 22 percent may be the result of eating expired meat, but the vast majority is not.

While trying to find examples of people becoming ill as a result of expired meat scams, we came across pages upon pages—entire forums even—devoted to the discussion of eating expired meat. Some tout the health benefits of eating purposefully rotted meat. The late Aajonus Vonderplanitz, for example, who turned to a diet of raw rotting meat after being introduced to it by some of the Indigenous peoples of Alaska. He called it the primal diet. Some discussions are prompted by panicked mothers who have just inadvertently fed their families minced beef that expired a week ago. Others are queries about how to prepare expired meat and how long, exactly, can it be expired before things get really dangerous. It became clear to us while writing this chapter that there are a large number of people out there intentionally buying reduced meat that’s close to expiry and genuinely researching ways to reduce their exposure to food poisoning. It is the modern-day Saturday-night market.

The FSA estimates that at least 40 percent of consumers are prepared to eat food that is past its use-by date. And as with all aspects of life, some people are greater risk takers than others. Whether motivated by money, following a primal diet or a desire not to waste the steaks rediscovered in the back of the fridge, people are making the decision to eat expired meat daily. The difference, of course, is that they are making that decision. They are using a number of different sensory clues (the smell and look of the meat) and their own personal past experiences (some people have stomachs of steel) to make their decision. It becomes fraudulent when this decision is taken away from the consumer, when consumers are sold something that isn’t what it claims to be, or when the tell-tale signs of bad meat have been cut away and masked by chemicals. It is then that consumers should be armed with the knowledge that if a deal seems too good to be true then it probably is—particularly in the world of meat.

Excerpted from Sorting the Beef from the Bull. Copyright © 2016 Richard Evershed and Nicola Temple. Published by Bloomsbury Sigma, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Nicola Temple
Nicola Temple ( wrote Sorting the Beef from the Bull, a book about food forensics.
Richard Evershed
Richard Evershed is a biogeochemist at the University of Bristol and co-author of Sorting the Beef from the Bull.