Abattoirs: Pressure Points
It was the year 1992 that the Queen declared as her annus horribilis. And while the past 12 months have not quite been that for the abattoir sector, they also fall far short of being an annus mirabilis - or ‘year of wonder’ too. To some, the industry is beseiged from all sides.
Buckling under the weight of legislation, dealing with inept officialdom, petty mandarins and flailing from assaults on meat like ‘meat-free Mondays’ the sector seeks solace like a stranded ship in a storm. Unfortunately, if it were looking for some from the Food Standards Agency (FSA) it was looking in the wrong place.
The organisation, which replaced the Meat Hygeine Service (MHS) as the official control body last year, is seen by some as a nemesis. This is compounded by the body’s decision to publish the name of meat plants on its controversial cause for concern list earlier this year - and its move to press ahead with full cost recovery for the cost of meat inspections.
Full cost recovery, which will cost the industry in the region of £20m, is scheduled to go ahead in April 2012. However, that is still someway off and some in the industry are left debating the decision to invest in their plants, people and procedures now - or wait and see following its introduction.
For its part, the FSA has pledged to do better. Trying to counter arguments from the sector that it is a ‘high cost monopoly service provider’ the government department has pledged to make cost savings of £5.5m. Following its consultation, the FSA also decided to allow more small businesses to be included in the ‘low throughput’ category when it comes to charging.
This revised system means that meat plants that qualify will pay a reduced charge in a tiered system, depending on the volume of livestock or meat they process. For the first 1,000 livestock units processed, the reduction would be a maximum of 70% of the full cost charge. The next 1,000 would be subject to a 50% reduction and the following 3,000 a 25% cut. The FSA argues that this measure would provide supports of £3.2m per year for about 570 establishments - as opposed to the £1.4m for 420 businesses that was originally envisioned.
And, at the 11th hour, the organisation also dropped controversial plans to try and pay for its pension deficit via the process.
However, for Norman Bagley, director of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) the organisation has not done enough in terms of savings in order to push through its full cost recovery proposal.
“The FSA openly brags that it is its own master and answers to no minister,” he says. “You have to admire the bravado. We shall see, but I don’t think this stacks up.
“One minister has already rubbished the idea and made it clear that Minsters will ultimately decide. Furthermore the Scots would laugh at the idea that FSA London will determine the future of how their meat industry is treated.”
He thinks that ministers will veto any proposal on charges that seeks to impose unjustifiable costs on industry, “Vague promises of “this is just a start” ring pretty hollow when coming from people who have consistently failed to reform their staff’s ancient term and conditions and stacked every conceivable overhead cost into the bargain that they think they can get away with.”
As part of the cost savings to the organisation, the FSA has restructured its field management, in a move that was outlined back in April. It has altered its geographical breakdown, changed management responsibilities, created a new role of supervisory meat hygeine inspectors and relieved official veterinarians of leadership responsibilities.
As Andrew Rhodes, director of operations of the FSA, explains, “I have made some changes to how the staff in the FSA are line managed.
“Currently they are managed by OVs, there is actually nothing wrong with that in terms of competence or anything like that. But OVs are remedial contractors and on a principle level I don’t think it is right for employees to be line managed by a contractor and it something that has not really been very popular.
“We already have managers in house and what we are doing is transferring this responsibility to them, instead of the contractors. And what that gives the OV is more time with their techinical duties and technical leadership - which is where they are meant to be. The overall line management size and structure will change as well and that will deliver a saving of £1.3m, from a reduced number of management posts and better balanced management structure.
“It’s natural that we should go through this evolution - you have the transformation exercise, you do something like that and then you make further refinements. It’s about taking it on to the next level and making some savings.”
But, this overhaul of field management aside, the industry still remains sceptical.
Bagley has previously claimed the FSA inflated its delivery costs in order to present a four year planned cost reduction timetable - however this notion has been vehemently denied by the department. He still thinks however that the organisation is overstaffed.
He says: “A serious reduction in inspector numbers in the face of a significant reduction in industry capacity over recent years would seem obvious to any normal business but not apparently to FSA.
“Having had their chance it is becoming clear that FSA can never deliver what is needed so Macdonald is the only realistic and practical way forward. Operating costs can be slashed significantly to a point where full cost recovery is not an issue as we have always said. It’s down to two issues; inspector numbers and overheads running at 50% when Cabinet Office guidelines are below 10%.”
For Rhodes, however, the £5.5m of savings is a starting point in a process of maximising the organisations efficiencies.
“There are a couple of important things to recognise on full cost recovery,” he says. “We are commited to £5.5m extra of savings, above what we have already delivered which is quite substantial.
“There has been a number of changes already and there are a number of other things that I want to do, working with the industry, to drive down costs.”
He points to the agency losing in the region of £1m for workers and hours the industry asked for but never used, “Now that is quite a cost that the industry is incurring for itself. We want to work with the industry to drive that down because that is saving for the industry and a saving for the FSA,” he adds.
“There are other flexibilities in the industry could be taking that they are not taking at the moment. So, for example, there are opportunities around visual inspection that have not been taken. There are opportunities for cold inspection, which have not been taken.
“We have identified a lot of further areas to drive out cost, we have identified more than the £5.5m we have comitted too but we have got to recognise that not every single idea will pay off.
We are certainly making very good progress to reducing our costs.”
Of concern to the industry is the competence of the staff the FSA employs - both in-house and in its contractors. Industry bodies have been arguing strongly for an improvement in standards, in an issue which again divides it from the FSA.
For Bagley most inspectors are ‘first class people’, but he argues that there are too many and says they themselves recognise this fact.
“Public sector employees are obviously concerned for their future,” he says. “But try telling that to the operator’s staff who look on in total bewilderment at the over generous employment terms and conditions of the sort they could only dream of. Most inspectors are realistic and the best will always find a future within the industry as we have already seen but the nettle just has to be grasped if FSA want fill cost recovery.”
On the topic of OVs, Bagley believes ‘you get what you pay for’, saying that many earning little more than the minimum wage with the ‘resulting inconsistency of competence’ obvious to everyone.
He adds: “As Pennington said we need fewer but better vets but there is no sign that FSA can deliver this. The best OVs are excellent but how many good ones want to be in an abattoir twiddling their thumbs for half the day.
“Talk to the good OVs and they will tell you that the current contract forces them to be there when a better system would allow them to mix and match the day with other duties elsewhere. The irony is that the current regulations allow this but the current contracts do not. The only flexibility in OV attendance has been in the very small plants where they also do inspection but elsewhere nothing.”
Rhodes says that where problems have been identified with OVs they have been promptly dealt with.
“All the OVs have to reach a minimum standard of competence. There are different grades of OVs so new OVs will be a novice, but they can only be a novice for a certain period of time otherwise they are no longer able to work as an OV,” he explains.
“Anyone that we have had problems with, that we haven’t been able to resolve have been removed.
“But there have been a lot of unfair things said about OVs. They work very, very hard in a very technical area. They have to be qualified to the right standard, they have to demonstrate that level of competence of OVs in terms of the audits they are carrying out on our behalf. Our controls and various different things have been audited and they have all come out with the highest possible ratings that you can get. I wouldn’t agree that there is a generic problem.”
Following on from the cat-calls on competency the industry has also been at odds over the issue of bullying. The FSA has claimed that its staff are frequently baracked, bullied and in some more serious cases assaulted.
Rhodes says: “It is something that has crept up, in some of the things people have said both privately and publicly. We won’t tolerate that kind of behaviour - because at the end of the day these people are doing a very difficult job and if they weren’t doing this job the meat industry would not be allowed to operate. They are absolutely critical to the success of the meat industry.”
John Geldard, chairman of AIMS, has conducted his own investigation into bullying following complaints by the FSA - and he claims his members are also victims of it too.
“This has been discussed at the highest level between AIMS and FSA. The total incidents although unacceptable are extremely few and total frustration by operators as to how they are treated accounts for much of this,” he claims.
“There are two sides to this story and suggestions that it is a major problem are plain wrong as most inspectors and plant staff try to work as a team. In truth there are many more relationship problems between experienced inspector staff and inexperienced OVs who are notionally their line managers than exist between plant and FSA staff.”
Meanwhile, while the industry and the FSA argue about the delivery of the meat inspection service rages there is one fact that at this stage remains unescapable; full cost recovery will be introduced in April 2012. But, has the FSA dragged its feet on the issue?
Not so, according to Rhodes. “We are a government dept, we do have to consult on these things, there is a proper process to go through and we have gone through that and we have gone through it in a very, very open way.
“The consultation was in public, the feedback from the consultation was in public and the discussion was done in public and people had the opportunity to contribute. We couldn’t really have been more open about what we were doing.
“Yes, it has taken time to get there, I don’t think anyone in the industry would have wanted us to rush into anything. What is has done, I think, is give people time to think about how they are going to prepare for this and what opportunities they are going to see to drive out efficiencies because there efficiencies to be made in the FSA and how the industry operates as well.”
But as Stephen Rossides, director at the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), put it in Meat Trades Journal recently - the industry will not stop here in its battle to get a better service from the FSA.
“We will continue to urge change, and press for greater cost efficiency, as well as for a real commitment to the principle and practice of earned recognition, a key theme of the Macdonald Task Force report.”
And for Geldard if full cost recovery is pushed through it will cause smaller to medium term plants to close - or for their work to be transferred elswhere - which in turn will threaten the nation’s food security.
He says: “Everyone should recognise the messsage of the government’s chief scientist, and his predecessor, over the course of the last decade talking about food security issues. This is creeping up on everybody and we are seeing prices go up - and we will continue to see prices go up. Which makes the importance of local medium plants scattered throughout the country of much greater importance than they have probably been for an awfully long time.
“Therefore the challenge for FSA, government, ministers and our industry is to work closely together to make sure we have the sustainability and viability of these plants. It’s in the long term interest of the nation.”
Work on Welfare
Last year the industry was left stunned after videos showing alleged animal cruety emerged after being covertly filmed by Animal Aid in a number of plants across the UK. The organisation filmed at JV Richards, Truro, Cornwall; AC Hopkins, Taunton, Somerset; Pickstock, Swadlincote, Derbyshire; Tom Lang Ltd, Ashburton Devon; ABP, Dorset; JH Lambert, Earsham, Norfolk and at A&G Barber, Purleigh, Essex. Animal Aid said that it was only Pickstock where no breaches were filmed.
As for the rest, Animal Aid filmed a number of violations including animals being kicked in the face, animals going to the knife without adequate stunning and inproperly stunned animals being stood onto be shackled, along with a number of other breaches.
As a result of the filming nine men were suspended or had their slaughter licences revoked. Legal action was taken against the nine and four slaughterhouse operators at five abattoirs. Controversially however the cases were dropped after the Department fo Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) decided that the prosecutions would not be succesful. Defra claimed that because the footage had been obtained secretly it would not be allowed to be used as evidence - a decision that Animal Aid has stated is not credible, following legal advice.
The organisation’s call to have CCTV installed in UK abattoirs now has the backing of the RSPCA, Compassion in World Farming, Soil Association and the FSA. The RSPCA has pledged to make it compulsory to have CCTV installed in all plants that are Freedom Food accredited. Bristol University is also using the footage to train vets and Soil Association inspectors.
But the biggest outcome of the footage has been the support from the supermarkets - with Iceland recently joining Aldi, Asda, the Co-op, Lidl, Marks & Spencers, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose and the wholesaler Booker all pledging to get CCTV installed in the meat plants they use.
Seperately, the government has announced plans to develop a new Animal Health and Welfare Board for England - which will give the livestock industry a greater say on policies.
The board, which was revealed by Defra, will bring together farmers, veterinarians, welfare experts and others from outside government, together with the Chief Veterinary Officer, a to make direct policy recommendations on policy affecting the health and welfare of all kept animals such as farm animals, horses and pets.
Announcing the new board, Jim Paice, Agriculture Minister, said: “This is a completely new way of working. It replaces the old ways, where the people most affected by decisions were kept at arm’s length from policy making on those subjects. This is about the Big Society not just existing in our communities, but in the heart of government – helping to put the decisions in the hands of those who are doing the work on the ground.”
Despite the external politics in the industry it continues to innovate in its plants by introducing new technology, better training and improved systems.
For example, Emydex Technology Ltd has implemented abattoir control systems at 15 plants in Ireland and the UK, in recent months, with installations in Beef, lamb and Pork abattoirs.
The Emydex offering for the IT data management software required for abattoirs is fully comprehensive. Being hardware independent Emydex works with customers to help them select the most suitable equipment upon which to run the Emydex software - taking into account existing equipment, new purchase budget and environment. The company claims to have a very flexible standard solution that can be implemented in accordance with the throughput at a plant and the line layout. This can cater for low throughput plants with a single plant floor data capture station to multiple stations on high speed lines.
Emydex has captured data from Lamb lines at up to 800 carcasses per hour. Kill line reporting provides the necessary official documentation such as classification sheets. A report definition and generating system is included which allows users to define whatever analysis reports they desire. The Emydex kill line module includes a kill line console, which is a dashboard showing selected key performance indicators (KPI) in real time.
Also this year Systems Integration has introduced an improved grading application as part of its Integreater system. As Rob Stephens, chief executive of the company, explains: “As with most grading solutions, our application is used to record livestock data such as weight and fat grade etc.
“However, what makes Integreater different is that in addition to being able to record accurate livestock data, our grade analysis report enables abattoir management to quickly and easily assess and benchmark the performance of their suppliers and identify who offers the best value for money. Suppliers can be assessed by whatever criteria is most important to each individual abattoir and this often includes average cost, weight and grade quality.”
The grading application works by using electronic data management to automate calculations and reporting. This means that abattoirs have a continuous, real time picture of supplier performance for any period of time and don’t have to manually gather and compare data. In turn, this saves time and ensures that information is always accurate and up to date.
Stephens adds: “Our grade analysis report enables management to have complete visibility of supplier performance. They can view hourly, daily, weekly or monthly results and long term historical data can also be quickly and easily calculated.
“Information can also be shared with farmers to enable them to improve their performance. Improved communication and supplier relationships ensure that abattoirs can achieve the best product quality and price”.