What's in a name?

The Food Standards Agency's (FSA) plans to publicly name plants that persistently fall below standard may have suffered a setback at the recent board meeting, but those in the frame may have only been granted a short reprieve.

Plants which had remained on the FSA's "cause for concern" list for more than 12 months would have been named publicly on the agency's website, if chief executive Tim Smith's plans had been given the go-ahead. As it happened, the board has requested more details before deciding either way on the move, with further discussion now due to take place at the meeting in March, giving the few plants in the FSA's sights a little more breathing room.

But how exactly does a plant end up on the FSA's blacklist and, with some in the industry accusing the agency of making too much of "petty misdemeanours" and some alleging the whole system is outside the agency's remit, should the wider meat industry have cause for concern?

letter to abattoirs

The whole concept was introduced in October 2009, when the first letters went out to around 67 plants across the industry, informing them the FSA considered them to be a "cause for concern".

"The whole thing helps us direct resources to where greater scrutiny is needed," said Stephen Humphreys, deputy director of communications with the FSA. He said the scheme was evolved out of the agency's standard auditing process of meat plants. "We look at three factors in the audit process, hygienic production, environmental hygiene looking at whether the plant is set up to run in a hygienic manner and HACCP plans." The audits vary in frequency dependent on the size of the plant, or the extent of the risk involved, but typically take place every three to eight months.

To make better use of the data captured in those audits, the FSA began to reassess it: "In October 2009, we translated those results into something that would more readily identify those plants that are a cause for concern. We effectively translated the audit scores plants were getting in each of those areas into points the more points you get, the worse your performance."

In the audits, plants were being assessed as good, adequate, weak or poor. By attributing scores, the FSA was able to assess the higher-scoring plants as a "cause for concern".

Fortunately, the numbers falling into the category are small, with 79% of industry rated "broadly compliant", and 18% falling into the "not broadly compliant" sector; just 3% are an issue for the FSA. And out of that 3%, roughly 43 plants across the UK, just four have been persistently on the list for 12 months and are at risk of being named. "Naming and shaming isn't a term we've used. Our view is that where plants have been on the list for a continued period of time 12 months in this case it is reasonable. We don't think they are raising their standards and we think it's appropriate to name them," said Humphreys.

However, some plant operators accuse the FSA's system of simply confusing the process, and call on it to stick to simply enforcing the law. Toby Baker, who runs a processing operation in Nailsea, said: "Cause for concern doesn't mean anything. If the meat is being stamped, then the job is being done right. The FSA has no right to talk about professionalism, it should be focusing on what the law requires. If people are not complying with the rules, then they should use the full force of it."

'subjective' assessments

Norman Bagley, policy director with the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, said: "The objection to the naming of meat plants as causing concern to the FSA is that the FSA's assessments are very subjective and it is a postcode lottery as to whether a plant is listed or not. It would allow the FSA to damage a plant's reputation without any right of appeal.

"If plants are not operating hygienically, the FSA has an array of enforcement tools it can use to rectify the situation and, if it has real concerns that there might be a risk to public health, it could refuse to health-mark the meat, seek an emergency prohibition notice, which is a very rapid procedure, and withdraw the plant's approval. FSA would appear to be trying to circumvent the normal legal process, because it is not very good at enforcement."

Humphreys, however, defended the scheme, pointing out that any public health risks were dealt with immediately outside of the process. "I would say that the vast majority of plants recognise this is a perfectly valid process and welcome the opportunity to address any concerns it might raise.

"Where a plant is 'cause for concern', we continue to carry out our official duties as normal and monitor actions being taken to address concerns. Where required, appropriate formal action is taken.

"In a small number of cases, businesses are not raising their standards and have remained on the 'cause for concern' list for more than 12 months. They potentially damage consumer confidence and taint the reputation of the rest of the industry.

"Naming those businesses would be consistent with our commitment to openness and transparency and our obligations under Freedom of Information legislation."

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