Calm in a crisis

The recent cases of foot-and-mouth have caused turmoil across the industry, but what about those companies at the heart of the outbreak? Ed Bedington hears how Andrew Chitty weathered the crisis.

They say a crisis brings out the best in people, and the same can be said of companies. When the recent foot-and-mouth (FMD) outbreak hit, the Chitty Food Group found itself in the eye of the storm.

There are few in the meat processing sector who have been untouched by the FMD crisis over the past couple of months, but none found themselves at the centre of the outbreak quite

like Chitty.

The company's facility in Guildford, Surrey, was inside the protection zone during both the first outbreak at the beginning of August and the subsequent and ongoing flare-up, which took place at the end of the month.

But despite the pressure the business found itself facing, Andrew Chitty, chief executive, says he was pleased with the way staff and the company stepped up to the challenge.

"At the time of the first outbreak, I was on holiday. The news first broke at around 9.30 at night; by midnight we had people in the plant disinfecting and putting down straw."

By the next day, the company was facing calls from customers, keen for an update on the situation.

"They wanted to know what animals we had, where we had got them from and whether we were dealing with anything from the infected areas. By 3pm we were able to tell them that we hadn't taken anything from the infected farm in 10 years."

SYSTEMS CHECK

He says the company's traceability system was able to tell him the last time it had dealt with the first affected farmer - back in 1997 - to the finest detail, from how many animals they took, how they were delivered and even the delivery driver's name. All the relevant details, from tag numbers to date and time of slaughter, were still on the system. "I was shocked that my system had the capability to go back so far," says Chitty.

The system was first developed in the early 1990s. "We had the first real traceability system in the industry," he claims - a system that benefited from the fact that one of the people developing it was a part-time farmer.

"He'd work at IT during the day and then go back to farming in the evenings. So he had a good understanding of what we needed."

The company was able to draw on the strength of that traceability system when FMD hit, he adds.

"When the second outbreak happened and we heard there was a possible outbreak in Egham, we were able to see immediately that we'd taken animals from that area. We were able to isolate those carcases, separate everything and disinfect the whole process. Effectively it meant we were ahead of the game."

NO IMMUNITY

Of course, having strong and robust systems means you can control any potential damage in a crisis, but it does not make you totally immune. While the entire industry found itself in limbo for three days, the Chitty Food Group suffered more than most. "In the first outbreak we lost two weeks, compared with the rest of the industry's three days," says Chitty. "That meant some very heavy costs and I'm not sure we're going to get any compensation for them."

He says the company is talking to the authorities on the matter, but he's not confident there will be a satisfactory conclusion without a fight.

"We're in a different position to the rest of industry," he says. "We were effectively part of the control system, which was decided by Defra. I wasn't granted a new licence because I was in the zone, so I think I'm more entitled to compensation. I fully supported Defra's decision. As an industry we don't want FMD to get out of control. Last time it cost the industry £8bn to put right. To pay me a little bit of compensation is

not unreasonable."

He is sceptical about the explanation for the source of the outbreak, commenting dryly that it was interesting the suspected drain at the heart of the leak was exactly halfway between the two facilities in Pirbright.

He says the government needs to face up to its responsibilities: "If my business does something wrong or if I don't deliver, I get fined for it and I lose business. I have public liability insurance against all sorts of things."

COMPENSATION CLAIM

While he is supporting the industry in its compensation claims, through the British Meat Processing Association, for the three lost days of production, he is pursuing a separate claim for the remainder of his two weeks loss. In the end, he was forced to outsource his slaughtering operations to three plants in Wales,

Nottingham, and Essex, all at considerable expense.

The second outbreak only led to two days loss, but again, Chitty suffered a day longer than the rest of the sector, he points out.

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