We agree with the Editor (MTJ 4 Sept) that industry and MHS share the blame for the recent Animal Aid incident. Unfortunately, that view does not appear to be held by Steve McGrath of the MHS. He has written to AIMS asking for a retraction of the view expressed by one of us (Stephen Lomax) that, at one plant, although the operator had fundamental responsibility for welfare, the official veterinarian (OV) ought to have spotted the welfare problems and drawn them to the attention of the operator. Mr McGrath seems to imply that OVs are too busy doing other things to spot ongoing welfare problems and asks whether we would wish to see an increase in veterinary presence to counteract this.

Our answer is no; the opposite is required. This is because the current regime, based on the permanent presence of an OV, was not only a contributory factor to this welfare problem not being detected, but was also a factor in the hygiene problems found by the South Wales E. coli inquiry. We see two reasons: the first is an understandable reluctance from some operators to take responsibility, when officials have permanent oversight of their workforce; the second is the inexperience of many OVs, who are unfamiliar with the standards required. No amount of transformation of the MHS can change the latter; it can never be cost-effective to assign an experienced veterinarian to every slaughterhouse in the country.

We believe the solution is to allow the operator to take full responsibility for both food safety and animal welfare by removing the MHS and subjecting the operation to unannounced audits by a small number of veterinary experts, with the knowledge to detect animal welfare and food safety deficiencies and the power to close premises where operators prove unwilling to take that responsibility. In the long-term, this would mean plants being able to employ their own qualified meat inspectors if they wished - a choice that is already available in the poultry industry.

We realise such a solution could not be put in place overnight. However, under existing EU law, a pilot could be carried out in which the role of MHS would be limited to providing an ante and post-mortem inspection service and a small team of very experienced vets working independently of that team would carry out all audit and enforcement tasks at the abattoir. We are willing to take the initiative and facilitate such a pilot, along with the other industry bodies, if the Food Standards Agency will join us.

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