Agreement in sight
The FSA, MHS and industry appear to be approaching some kind of understanding on meat hygiene costs and the signs are more positive than for some time. Keren Sall reports
Meat hygiene costs have been an emotive issue, dominating the headlines ever since the government announced that it was going to move towards full cost recovery. The industry pointed out that Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) costs had been escalating over the years, because of overstaffing by veterinary staff and meat hygiene inspectors. The Meat Hygiene Service reacted rather defensively at times, because it felt understandably threatened over what it saw as potential job losses resulting from this.
But this year, it seems, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), MHS and industry bodies have come to some sort of understanding, as all parties resolve to move past this impasse.
The Optimisation Project, which has just been published, seems to have done more than anything else to have lifted the lid on what actually can be done to reduce meat hygiene costs. The tri-partite project, carried out by the MHS, FSA and industry bodies the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) and the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), involved visits to 19 slaughterhouses and identified areas where potential savings could be made.
It appears that everyone involved in the meat chain, from government bodies such as Defra and the FSA to MHS and industry, can help to reduce meat hygiene costs. One of the areas where significant savings can be realised is the TSE and Specified Risk Material (SRM) controls, introduced following the BSE crisis in 1996. These required more stringent (duplicate checking) and hence more resource from the MHS. "We laid all these controls down so we could get the beef ban lifted," says Kenneth Clarke, veterinary adviser at the FSA.
"So no blame can be apportioned to the MHS. It has been just doing what government required it to do.
"The incidence of BSE has fallen dramatically, so it is time for the whole cacophony of checks and controls to be challenged. There is general recognition that these systems need dismantling," he added.
The project also looked at how TSE and SRM controls were handled in Northern Ireland on a risk-based approach and came to the conclusion that lots of things done there could also be done here. BMPA director Stuart Roberts concurs with the conclusions and Clarke's remarks on government action. "It is vital that TSE duplication of identification checks are addressed, as they will make a big difference to cost savings in inspection charges. Defra and the FSA have to play their part in removing the inefficiencies they have imposed and not leave it to the FSA and MHS to deal with the immediate recommendations made in this report."
The MHS, likewise, says it is waiting for Defra to change its policy. "Until it does, we have to carry out the belts and braces policy and carry it out properly," says Jane Downes, veterinary and technical director for the MHS.
Interestingly and also for the first time, the project is getting Food Business Operators (FBOs) and the MHS to come up with a Business Agreement together. "The key to the Business Agreement is that both parties have a very detailed discussion about how things can be done better, where you can be more efficient and where the plant feels there is overmanning and how this can be addressed," says Roberts. "It gives FBOs greater influence in relation to MHS staffing and procedures than has been the case in the past."
According to Roberts, plants that operate on a contract kill basis, require a lot more flexibility from the MHS and want inspectors in all day just in case they need them could face some difficulties, as the move towards an hours-based system could mean they end up paying significantly more for inspection costs than under the headage system. "But the good news," he says, "is that, for the first time, you can reduce your MHS cost without reducing your throughput if you organise your lairage capacity in terms of timetabling animal arrivals efficiently."
However, Norman Bagley, policy director at AIMS, is not keen for his members to sign the Business Agreement mooted. "There are issues that need to be resolved, such as what is deemed to be beyond the responsibility of the plant and therefore not chargeable. None of these issues have been addressed in the Business Agreement yet."
Despite this minor difference, Bagley, like Roberts, believes a lot of progress has been made as far as this report is concerned. The industry, the MHS and the FSA are looking for solutions and, hopefully, this will translate into something good for all three parties.
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