Things have to change

The meat industry is intent on seeing the MHS privatised but is this such a good idea? Keren Sall reports

There seems to be a consensus in the processing industry that the meat inspection service is long overdue for an overhaul. Dress it up anyway you like, ultimately what the processing meat industry wants is for the meat inspection service to be privatised.

The Meat Hygiene Service consultation on proposed fees and the restructuring of the MHS basically has provided the processing industry with a vehicle to finally publicly voice its dissatisfaction with the inspection body and to offer up alternative proposals. The MHS has also come up with its own proposals to move to a largely employed workforce, which the processing industry finds unacceptable.

"The fact that this issue is in the public domain is an acknowledgment things have to change. Obviously various proposals are flying around and the MHS has four-to-five versions of the status quo which are not acceptable to anyone but the MHS," said Norman Bagley policy director at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers.

Maurice McCartney, director at the British Meat Processors Association, echoed similar sentiment. "Industry has long standing concerns about the cost and efficiency of the MHS.

"A review of the current framework for meat inspection is timely. The new hygiene legislation implemented from 1 January 2006 has changed the landscape and we welcome the new responsibility placed on meat plants as food business operators."

He added the scenarios presented in the MHS consultation on future structure were unacceptable for a forward thinking industry and run counter to the philosophical thrust of the new regulatory approach.

The British Poultry Council is in agreement with Bagley and McCartney. "The meat industry needs to change to reflect the new hygiene regulations which give more responsibility to plant owners. We have been in touch with the FSA to voice our concerns," said a spokesman for the BPC.

Meat processors in Scotland also back BMPA's proposals for the overhaul of meat inspection services, and according to Alistair Donaldson, chief executive of the SMWA, these proposals have been under consideration for some time, even before the MHS consultation. "We can't stand still, we have to look at what is happening in other member states. The Danes are evaluating risk based assessment rather than microbiological."

He emphasised although his members were looking for a cost effective method of delivery those cost savings would and should not be at the expense of public health.

The discussions as to the future of the MHS, he added, were still in the early stages. "There is a lot more detail and work to be done to develop a new structure. We have to get acceptance of the principle before it can be moved by the FSA."

One surprising ally of the meat suppliers in the MHS furore is the British Veterinary Association. It believes there is a case, 11 years after the inception of the MHS, for changes in the structure of delivery of controls. "We believe that the reasons for change go beyond those outlined by MHS in conclusion to the reports from Wall and [analysts] DNV."

It went onto say that the proposals put forward by MHS do not promote a sustainable meat industry supported by appropriate and flexible delivery of official controls. "While consumer protection is the aim of official controls, these must be delivered in a cost-effective manner." The BVA wants a body other than the MHS, preferably a non governmental body, to be responsible for inspection tasks of both Official Veterinarian and Meat Hygiene Inspectors. It also believes consideration should be given to the option of inspection tasks by officially accredited control bodies, but reinforced by a robust system of MHS audit.

The MHS has been aware that restructuring was on the cards when a new chief executive was appointed, according to Pierce Furlong, chief executive of the Association of Meat Inspectors. "We are surprised it has taken so long for the news to come to light."

However, he said: "A post consultation formulation of a consultation is not a true consultation as the outcome is already established. We have not been consulted or invited to comment on proposals."

Furlong was also quick to point out that the Dutch model, which has moved from meat provision by one governmental body to four or five independent companies, one of the proposals put forward by the processing industry, was just a pilot project.

"To actually put meat inspection up for the bidding process to produce the lowest common denominator is unacceptable. It will put pressure on meat inspectors to approve meat that is totally unfit for human consumption." He cited the case in the States where this had happened and bruised birds with abscesses had gone into chicken nuggets.

Furlong added in his personal opinion he would prefer it if inspection was to be moved from the MHS that it should be to local authorities rather than a privatised meat industry. The FSA, meanwhile, is not ruling out any change in the MHS structure.

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