The successful return of over thirty month (OTM) beef has proved the industry can be trusted when it comes to food safety issues, claimed Patrick Wall, chairman of the European Food Safety Authority, but he warned that the industry was in danger of being "regulated to death".
He claimed the fact the meat industry demonstrated its capabilities could see "winds of change" when it comes to food safety regulation and inspection throughout the sector.
Speaking at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers annual conference in Bristol last week, Wall said the risk of BSE had reduced and it was now time to start addressing the issue of reducing controls and taking costs out.
He pointed to the fact that policing the industry was nearly as big an operation as the industry itself. He said BSE had put the spotlight on the food chain and precipitated an "epidemic of food standard agencies". Now, despite the improvements in food safety management, there was no shortage of food safety agencies looking for something to do. "The risk management seems to be in proportion to the media coverage, rather than the risk to public health," he said. He was aware that there were more cost effective systems of control and inspection than at present and was sympathetic to the industry's frustration with the MHS.
"There are lots of things that could be done to produce a more cost effective system, so why hasn't anything been done?
"OTM was a crucial trial and nobody was going to unravel the system prior to that, there were too many cynics saying it would never work."
The relationship between the police and those being policed was never going to be great, he pointed out, but if the regulation is clear, logical and applied consistently, relationships can be improved.
Jason Aldiss, managing director of veterinary meat hygiene practice Eville & Jones, agreed that things need to change, and outlined an improved system to AIMS members, which revolved around a risk based structure with industry ownership.
He said at present things were the wrong way round: "At the moment we have business needs driving inspection, rather than inspection needs driving the business. We've got it backwards. We need a new approach."
He said he was not preaching revolution, but rather evolution of the system where, at present, success is measured by failure. He proposed a new approach between regulators and industry offering tailored inspection packages, efficient deployment of staff, risk and reward-based inspections, so that there would be less inspections for well run good plants to act as an incentive, while enforcement would only be through referral to an independent non-plant-based team.
However, Wall urged the industry not to lose sight of the bigger picture when it comes to the challenges facing the sector.
He said the issues surrounding SRM, MHS 'hassle' and full cost recovery would soon be in the past: "In a couple of years time, you won't be worried about any of these things."
He pointed to tight margins, supermarket dominance, imports and the declining national herd as the more serious challenges.