FSA audit process questioned
Published:  09 December, 2011

Food Standards Agency (FSA) bosses are coming under fire from some in the meat industry who question the reliability of its audit process. The claims, made by the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), follow on from the news that Summers Poultry, the plant that took an injunction out to stop the FSA withdrawing its services, has been granted an A Grade, following a recent BRC audit.

AIMS officials also cited a recent court case in which a judge ruled that worsening audit scores at a slaughterhouse had to be disregarded, as they bore no resemblance to the constant improvement recorded in the narrative of the audit reports.

The FSA is currently preparing to publish the reports of its audits for public consumption, but Peter Hewson, a consultant with AIMS, claimed the FSA board, in discussion, expressed concern over the ability of consumers and industry to clearly understand the reports.

Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors Association, added: “We await the outcome of the FSA’s review of its audits, and we have some concerns about the FSA pushing ahead with publication of audit results before the finalisation of new audit arrangements. We must ensure that the language used in any publication of audit results is balanced and clear, and does not lead to false conclusions on the part of consumers or retailers.”

However, AIMS is calling for a change in the way audits are conducted. Norman Bagley, policy director, said: “Most FSA audits are carried out by official veterinarians permanently based at the plants they audit. There is no way such audits can be truly objective or independent and, far too often, personality issues arise between the operator and the plant-based auditor. BRC and AFS audits are subject to third-party scrutiny, but there is no third-party audit of the FSA and any reference to a limited number of FVO visits, as being a substitute for proper third-party audit of an FSA function, is nonsense.”

Hewson added: “The main purpose of an audit is to assist the operator to achieve compliance.  Introducing a subjective scoring system to produce a league table is fraught with danger, which is why the old Hygiene Assessment System was abandoned. The only meaningful measures of food safety are output-based.”

However, the FSA rejected the claims. A spokesman said: “We are confident that our audit reports of meat plants are robust, and are an effective means of determining performance. They are compiled initially by the Official Veterinarian, but are then subject to a series of checks by senior staff to ensure they are an accurate representation of the standards found within meat plants.

“Audits have demonstrated that compliance is better now than it has ever been — the number of broadly compliant plants has improved by 28% in two years, from 64 to 82.

“The FSA’s plans to publish audits are still in place. They are part of our commitment to openness and transparency. We are giving careful consideration to the best way to present them to ensure they are clear and meaningful.”

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