At what cost?

The challenge to reduce costs on meat hygiene inspection lies as much with Defra and the FSA as it does with industry. But the meat sector must also shoulder its share of the responsibility, finds Keren Sall

The meat industry, it appears, has finally accepted that a full-cost hygiene inspection recovery service is on its way. Instead of being funded as it is today, where two-thirds is paid for by Defra and, ultimately, the tax payer, the industry is going to have to shell out for it in the future.

The meat sector, which has seen more and more rules covering hygiene coming from the EU, has rightly questioned whether some of these inspections are necessary and whether these have been interpreted correctly by the UK government, as they have involved duplicate checking of cattle identification and hence unnecessary expenditure that could be taken out.

This questioning has focused on the Meat Hygiene Service and its inspection service, which the meat industry has criticised for being vastly overstaffed. The MHS has seen this an attack on it and reacted defensively at times, pointing out its focus is on the health of the consumer.

Additionally, it is eager to illustrate that its Staff Verification Programme, which was the forerunner of the Transformed Meat Hygiene Service (TMHS) project, has been looking at how it can provide a leaner, more efficient hygiene inspection service. “With the TMHS, we took out 134 jobs and that was just the beginning,” says Jane Downes, veterinary and technical director at the MHS.

Downes also says she suggested that the Optimisation Project – a project, initiated by the MHS to identify where potential saving on meat hygiene costs could be made – include the industry, as Stuart Roberts, director of the British Meat Processors Association and Norman Bagley, policy director at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers had said to her the industry needed to change, not just the MHS. “So I set up the group to see what we could change in our industry to make us more efficient and what the Food Standards Agency (FSA) could do, as a point of policy or in future legislation, so we get more effective controls than we have now”

There was a reason, she adds, for the bulking-up of the MHS in the past, as extra controls were required for SRM removal in cutting plants and BSE checking, which led to a need for extra staffing. “We then had the E.Coli inquiry and there was an element of ‘Do your checks more effectively’ – ie, carry out more detailed inspection. At one point we had a zero foetal contamination target to hit,” she explains. “When inspectors are doing that, they need a lot of time to inspect thoroughly. If they don’t do this and a contaminated carcase enters the food chain, they risk losing their job. Then we had the over-30-month (OTM) ruling and we also had foot-and-mouth, which required extra staff for cleansing and disinfection duties.”

She insists the MHS had the right number of staff in the past, but acknowledges that this is now changing with the incidence of BSE coming down dramatically. Asked how she plans to cut down the number of MHS staff required in the future, Downes says the MHS will reduce the number of contractors it uses and, where possible, redeploy staff.

However, the Optimisation Project report, which visited 21 meat plants in total – 19 in GB and two in Northern Ireland – does not pin the blame on ballooning hygiene costs just on the MHS. The tripartite report, which included the FSA, the MHS and industry, says the meat sector can also help reduce costs by being more efficient, while the FSA and Defra can dismantle the cacophony of checks and controls that were set up to get the beef ban lifted. To critics who just point the finger of blame at the MHS, Kenneth Clarke, veterinary adviser for the FSA, who helped compile the report, is clear this is not the right view. “The MHS is doing what it has been asked to do by its paymasters, Defra and the FSA. The whole section relating to TSE and SRM is outside the MHS’ controls.”

He adds that the legislation is quite complex, with Defra being responsible for TSE and cattle identification, and the FSA for SRM. “It is generally recognised there is a bit of confusion and it needs sorting out.”

Stuart Roberts agrees with Clarke and believes that this is the area where a significant difference can be made in slashing hygiene inspection costs. “The MHS is starting to play its part, but the real pressure is now on the FSA and Defra,” he says. “While we as industry could, say, make a 20% difference and the MHS another 20%, a big 60% is down to Defra and the FSA.”

But Roberts is equally adamant that the industry take responsibility for cutting hygiene costs. Enormous degrees of flexibility, where companies are asking the inspectors to chop and change hours to suit it, will come at a price in the future. The analogy he uses to illustrate this point is, “If you want a Rolls Royce service you will have to pay a Rolls Royce price. And if you pay a Mini Metro price, you get a Mini Metro service. You cannot pay a Mini Metro price and expect a Rolls Royce service. The two are incompatible.”

However, he also believes that companies who have a good track record and want a certain level of service should be rewarded for that. “If you have people who are consistently poor performers, then we are not here to defend them.”

Roberts stresses that attention should not be solely focused on the MHS, which is a body that carries out instructions given to it by the government, but on meat hygiene, the framework within which it works, and how that work is carried out. He likens the current system to that of one-size-fits-all and command and control. He says: “I summed it up once as the ‘parent-child’ approach. It won’t work if the industry acts like a child, or vice versa. It is about two adults with a common goal, which is about reducing hygiene costs in an efficient manner. We have to start focusing attention on how MHS fundamentally does things.”

At the same time, Roberts is keen to get recognition between schemes sorted out, as a meat plant may already have its own quality control system in system place, as well as having been audited by a host of other bodies, such Red Tractor, RSPCA’s Freedom Foods and BRC. “At the moment, you get all these people coming to check if your cattle identification system works. If one person has checked them and is not happy with them, so should the others. This where we have to focus our attention – not moaning just about the MHS,” he says.

Roberts adds that the report has highlighted, that different Food Business Operators are at different stages in their readiness to take on board the recommendations. That is fine, he adds, as everyone can move at different paces, depending on competence, ability and system track records. While some people believe the new system has favoured the larger operators, he does not see it this way:“It is small versus unprofessional. You can be the smallest and professional, but if you are not prepared to take responsibility, then there shouldn’t be a place in the industry for you.”

Part of that responsibility is getting farmers and processors around the table to talk about electronic identification of cattle, which Roberts is doing. “If we do nothing about our recommendations, then we should be silent about what the FSA and MHS have done about theirs.”

Roberts is developing some industry guidance for his members, following the Optimisation Project, in preparation for the first Project Board meeting, which is expected to take place at the end of this month.

It will be interesting to see what government bodies such as the FSA and MHS plan to take to this meeting. The report has outlined suggestions on what action they should be pursuing and the spotlight will be on them as much as industry.


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