FSA reacts to Unison reform attack

The Food Standards Agency has hit out at union leaders for making extraordinary claims ahead of a board meeting vote tomorrow.

Unison, the union which represents some of the UK’s meat inspectors, has attacked plans to reform the FSA’s charging and discount structure to try and iron out some of the inconsistencies within the system, which has been criticised by industry for being no longer fit for purpose and distortive of competition.

The board is being asked to agree a number of proposals to improve fairness within the system, essentially creating a discount band system, with discounts applied based on the level of usage of FSA resources. The board will also consider whether further allowance should be given where poultry plants use Plant Inspection Assitants (PIAs), so as not to penalise these plants under the new charging system However, in a report submitted to the board by a steering group, it admitted “the proposal results in winners and losers which makes it difficult for industry associations to unequivocally sign up to the proposal”.

The shift to industry led inspection has provoked an angry response from Unison, which represents some meat inspectors. General secretary Dave Prentis said: “These proposals would result in slaughterhouses being subsidised by the taxpayer if they employ their own plant inspection assistants. This makes as much sense as a teacher paying students to mark their own exam papers.

“Giving the industry carte blanche to inspect its own products is yet another cynical attempt at privatisation which would save the industry money at the expense of public safety. Nobody should have to worry about eating food containing tumours, faeces, abscesses and other contaminants.”

However, the FSA has hit back. A spokesman said: “The FSA is proposing to reform a number of aspects of how meat plants are charged for FSA inspection, to create a fairer charging system with plants of the same size charged similar amounts.

“As part of this proposal, the FSA Board are being asked to consider whether further financial allowance should be given where poultry plants use Plant Inspection Assistants (PIAs), so as not to penalise these plants under the new charging system. Poultry plants have always been able to employ their own Plant Inspection Assistants if they wish – this is not a new proposal, nor is the idea of having a specific discount provision for premises with PIAs.

“It is extraordinary that Unison claims public health safeguards will be compromised by use of PIAs – there is no evidence to back this up and the FSA would not allow any system which could threaten food safety. The FSA assesses suitability of plants wanting to use PIAs, and they must have a proven record of good hygiene practices. New PIAs must complete proper training and will work under the supervision of an official vet while carrying out inspection duties. PIAs have been in use successfully for many years.”

Meanwhile, meat industry representatives gave a mixed reaction to tomorrow’s vote. Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors Association, said: “The proposal on the table to redistribute the pot available for discount would reduce some of the more grotesque distortions in a bad system, but it won’t benefit some of the larger, more efficient companies. However, we do support the proposition to create a separate working group to look at more wider issues which would open the way for more strategic discussions.”

The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers said: “AIMS’ support for the proposal is entirely dependent on the FSA agreeing to deliver on its long-standing policy to facilitate the replacement of meat inspectors by PIAs in poultry plants and thereby remove significant cost from the system.”

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