Overhaul of FSA audits urged
Published:  20 January, 2012

Leading members of the meat industry have renewed their calls for an overhaul of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) auditing system for meat plants, following the news that the FSA has gone ahead with its controversial plans to publish audit reports of approved meat plants in England, Scotland and Wales.

The first tranche were published on Monday (16 January) and included more than 200 audits that have been completed since 1 November 2011. From now on, around 200 audits will be issued at the end of each month.

However, the publication of audits comes ahead of the FSA review of audit arrangements, which is being undertaken to make them easier to understand, both for the food business operator and for people not involved in the meat industry.

Norman Bagley, policy director for the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) said: “I am all in favour of publishing audit reports as long as they are the work of experienced independent auditors.

"However, everyone – including the FSA’s own board members – questioned whether the Agency should go ahead with publication of the reports from its current audit system and a quick analysis of the data that has been published shows how right everyone was.

“The system is clearly extremely subjective and inevitably, with the involvement of numerous auditors of varying experience, the results published are full of inconsistencies. I agree with the District Judge who recently ruled that FSA audit scores were unreliable.

“I only hope good individual businesses will not suffer as a result.”

Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) agreed. He said: “Retailers and other customers are going to see these audits, so it is very important that there is no risk of misinterpretation either by consumers or by indeed by customers of the audit reports.

“The audit reports need to be presented clearly, meaningfully, consistently and in a balanced way. In principle two auditors should say the same thing, but that isn’t really the case, so the element of subjectivity is slightly concerning.”

The Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW) has accused the FSA of paying scant attention to the views of industry officials.

SAMW executive manager Ian Anderson said: “This is just typical of the FSA’s poor attitude to the meat industry.  

“When it became known last Autumn that the FSA was proposing to publish meat plant audit reports, SAMW pointed out that the current audit and reporting system was widely regarded as being flawed and in need of fundamental change and that, as a review was in progress, publication should be delayed until a satisfactory replacement could be brought in.

“In spring, the FSA had held workshops with industry and other interested parties, where the consensus was that the reports were too long, the scoring system impenetrable and the reports likely to be misleading to consumers and customers alike. The strong view of the industry was that, if publication was to be introduced, it should await the revamping of the audit report and the establishment of a clear and easily understood scoring system, based on meaningful terminology.”

The FSA has defended its position to publish before completing the auditing review, saying that the publication has long been under discussion and forms part of its commitment to transparency. It pointed out that it has published detailed guidance notes on how to read the audit reports, in order that they can be clearly and easily interpreted.

Tim Smith, chief executive of the FSA, said: ‘We think it’s important that people have access to this type of information; it shows not only the FSA’s commitment to publishing all useful information, but we hope publication will also help businesses to maintain high standards in this vital food sector.”

FSA approval is required before a meat plant, including slaughterhouses, cutting plants and game handling establishments, can operate. There are 1,200 FSA-approved meat plants in Great Britain, and 60 in Northern Ireland.

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