Regulating the meat industry

The meat industry needs to grow up if it wants to see an end to government-imposed regulation, says Tim Smith, chief executive of the Food Standards Agency (FSA).

The sector is one of the most closely regulated areas in food manufacturing, a fact that regularly leads to heated debate between the regulators, Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) and the FSA, and industry. And many processors and abattoir operators are keen to throw off the yoke of government-imposed regulation.

But Smith wonders if the industry is mature enough for such responsibility, adding that recent events, including Animal Aid exposés and poor European vet inspection reports, point towards more government intervention, not less. "Every time I think we're getting close, we get caught out," he says.

He points to Professor Hugh Pennington's comments following his report into the South Wales E.coli outbreak, which highlighted a cultural problem of risk within the sector. "It's more prevalent in the meat industry than any other sector there are whole sections of food manufacturing where there is risk, but we don't see the same problems."

He considers the meat sector's history as partly at fault. "If you look a high-risk areas, such as ready-to-eat foods, that sector has come from nowhere in the last couple of decades, but that simply would never have got established if it had proved to be a risk. The meat industry has been around since time immemorial and it has grown up much more slowly than I would have liked."

Smith is far from a novice when it comes to meat either. Prior to heading up the FSA, he spent his working career in the food industry and found his first job working on the slaughter line in a suit and tie. "My first job was in the meat industry, killing pigs for Unigate I had a slaughterman's licence. The general manager's view was that his graduates should have done everything they were required to supervise, but he insisted we had to look the part so we had to do it in a suit and tie. He said his graduates always had to look professional."

Shortly after, he left the meat sector and found himself specialising in dairy, helping to steer the merger of Express and Arla, the culmination of a long period of rationalisation in that sector. However, his early experience on the slaughterline was useful when he found himself pitched straight into the maelstrom that is the relationship between the MHS, an executive agency of the FSA, and industry.

While the MHS is only one aspect of Smith's job, it certainly seems to have dominated his time since joining the agency in 2007. His tenure has coincided with a move to modernise and cut the costs of the MHS, with the ultimate intention, driven by government, to move to a position where the agency's cost are borne entirely by industry. Naturally, such a move is not popular with the business operators, who argue that the MHS is overblown and out-of-touch with the modern risks facing the sector.

That accusation is something Smith partly acknowledges: "The MHS does look at some of the wrong things. The controls we have are largely driven by an historical set of concerns, some of which go back over a century. Changing those regulations is something most of Europe now accepts is desirable. We need to move to something more focused on modern problems, more to do with food-borne micro-organisms."

But he warns against attempts to change regulation too quickly. "We don't want to change things piecemeal nor do we want to be over-hasty, as we might end up with something unanticipated happening that is the law of unintended consequences. We need to gather as much evidence as possible to support a move away from something we probably don't need to be doing anymore."

Unfortunately, Smith believes that evidence is not readily to hand. "Thanks to things such as the FVO report and Animal Aid's films, the evidence we're gathering points strongly in favour of government controls. I hate clichés, but the 'bad apple' one here is unavoidable."

He steadfastly refutes claims that the MHS should be taking the blame for failing to pick up on incidents allegedly filmed by animal activists. "They're wrong. Food businesses have to set themselves up to produce safe meat. It all comes down to trust. If our guys were to go missing, then everything should carry on as normal."

Even if the FSA did manage to effect the change at EU level that the industry wants, he warns it should not expect costs to fall: "I wouldn't assume that any change would result in a wildly different cost structure."

If industry wants to see the European framework change, it has to start having "grown-up" conversations with the FSA, says Smith.

The recent attempt by the FSA to gain a 4% increase in MHS charges, blocked by the devolved minister and rejected by industry in consultation, is a case in point. At the time, during an FSA board meeting, Smith said: "Those who saw the 4% rise as a simple win-or-lose decision need to think carefully about the consequences of such action." His comments suggested the failure to approve the rise would hamper the FSA's ability to lobby for legislative reform at European level.

Defending those comments, he says: "It was a reaction on my part, and the executive team here if everything we do is this painful and takes so long, is it the right thing to be doing?"

He says trying to go to Europe to push through change for the benefit of industry when that industry is clearly fighting the FSA on every level, is pointless, and would make it impossible to present a united front. "We need to be thinking about whether this industry is mature enough. My comments in the meeting were really a plea for leadership from the industry that we needed to have a grown-up conversation."

Another consequence of that failure to push through increased charges has been the decision to consult on going ahead with full cost recovery. "If industry had held hands with us when we were reducing costs, and gone along with what we regarded as modest increases, then we would not have had this 'road to Damascus' moment," says Smith. "We realised we couldn't be susbidising an industry we are supposed to be policing; if there was to be a subsidy, it should come from elsewhere," he says, adding that government policy is clear they want to move to full cost recovery. The rejection of the 4% increase forced the FSA to go back to the drawing board.

"It's probably over-simplistic to say, but if we'd agreed to full cost recovery through a series of increases, then the board wouldn't have been asked to consider it. It gave us the opportunity to go back and consider the question, it wasn't a kneejerk reaction or taken in a fit of pique. One thing I don't think the industry is really aware of is, let's assume full cost recovery does happen, that doesn't mean the money will come to us."

Smith says the FSA is working hard to modernise the MHS, with one key change being the restructuring that will see the organisation brought back in-house with the FSA. He says that move will create a shorter chain of command and improve efficiencies.

What industry needs to remember, says Smith, is that despite its name, the MHS is not a service. "The front-line staff are there as enforcers, to protect consumers."

And he has a final, simple message: "Ultimately, the shift away from government-imposed controls is in the hands of the industry. If they can show there's no need for the MHS, then they have it within their power to demonstrate we're not needed, and nobody would be more happy than I to see that. But I don't think I'll be in this job when that happens it's a long way off."

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