Healthy concerns

UK meat inspectors warn that reducing inspection controls would threaten public health. Legitimate concern, or are they fighting for their jobs in the face of looming redundancy? Carina Perkins spoke to an inspector to find out

For all the fighting over meat hygiene charges, industry and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) can at least agree on one thing - that meat inspection controls should be reduced and more proportionate to the risk. The recent Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) Modernisation Update report includes a number of proposals to this effect, including reducing MHS frontline supervision of SRM controls and negotiating risk-based controls in Europe.

Insistent that plant hygiene controls are stringent to guarantee safety, the industry is going a step further and pressing for self-regulation. This is being tested in poultry plants, where FBO-employed plant inspection assistants are overseeing inspection. Talk to any meat inspector, however, and you will get a long list of reasons why self-regulation would never work. Meat inspectors have raised serious concerns over the path that the MHS is taking with reform, and warn that public safety could be at risk.

Venting concerns

Forbidden from talking to the press, the inspectors are venting their concerns on various website forums. Allegations made on these forums include serious violations of SRM controls, falsified contamination records, carcases riddled with parasites and incompetent official veterinarians (OVs).

MTJ was approached by one meat inspector, who wanted to keep his identity secret for fear of reprisals. The inspector, who will be referred to as X, says he is "seriously concerned" about what is happening in the MHS.

He claims that in some areas, things are being allowed to slide, due to a fear of failures being publicised: "The MHS wants to show the system is working just fine." Although the industry claims meat inspection is outdated and the controls no longer relevant to risk, X argues that meat inspectors are vital for public safety, and points out that they do a lot more than BSE checks. "There are a lot of problems that would proliferate if we were not here. TB is a massive problem - we find a case every day - and half the OVs cannot spot the signs. It's the same with parasites and septicemia," he says.

A major bugbear among inspectors is that the OVs, who have increasing control over inspection, are not trained to inspect meat and are therefore heavily reliant on the meat inspector's expertise. "You need to know what you are looking for and where you are looking. I know of one supermarket supplier who was replacing New Zealand lamb with English lamb and it was a meat inspector who uncovered it," says X. "A lot of the young vets are inexperienced when it comes to meat and will just have the wool pulled over their eyes if we are not there."

Many have dismissed the inspectors' allegations as a desperate attempt to save their jobs. X argues, however, that there is a genuine concern for public safety among inspectors, which existed long before redundancies were on the horizon. "It is not just about jobs. We have been arguing about some of these things for a long time. I admit that we are overmanned, that MHI levels have escalated since the MHS was created, but I think that meat inspection should absolutely be left to trained personnel, not vets or plant-employed staff."

Controversy

X admits that some of the changes that caused controversy among inspectors, such as the no-knife policy, have actually led to improvements. "Slaughtermen have to trim the carcases themselves again, which means they are going back to the old ways of taking care over each carcase," he says. However, he points out that meat inspectors need to be able to use their own judgement.

"They need to give meat inspectors a little bit of flexibility; sometimes you need a knife to investigate things," he says. "They are not allowing us to use our common sense and we feel as if we are being treated like children."

Anger among meat inspectors led to a ballot for strike action last November over changes to terms and conditions, but X does not think the proposed terms of the contract are too terrible. He says meat inspectors are just angry because they feel intimidated and have nowhere to turn for support.

"We are angry because we feel no-one is listening to us. In some plants there is a lot of hostility from the shop floor and management. We feel like they are trying to squeeze us out and make our job untenable. All we want is a bit of support and someone to talk to."

Faced with changing contracts, redundancies and diminishing responsibility, inspectors could easily be dismissed as a group of people desperately trying to validate their position in the industry. While some inspectors seem on the verge of hysteria, however, others clearly just want their concerns to be heard. "We just want someone to listen to what we have to say. A lot of us have been in this business for a long time," says X. "If the MHS is serious about reducing costs while maintaining public safety, perhaps it's time it started to listen a bit more closely to its own staff."

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