Audit change reaction

When the Food Standards Agency (FSA) announced last week that it was launching a new auditing system, it was no doubt expecting an enthusiastic response from industry representatives, who had slammed the previous audit system for its impenetrable scoring system, misleading wording, level of subjectivity and inconsistency.

However, while the British Meat Processors Association gave a cautious welcome to the new system, the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) reacted furiously, taking particular offence to the fact that the FSA claimed the system had been developed in consultation with industry. The Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW) also raised concerns, with executive manager Ian Anderson recognising that the system included some "very welcome improvements", but agreeing that the FSA's handling of the process "left a lot to be desired".

The FSA did hold a number of meetings with industry representatives during the review process and Craig Kirby, FSA's head of Approvals & Veterinary Advice, said he was "comfortable that the FSA engaged a significant amount with industry". He pointed out that he had spent a considerable amount of time going through industry comments on the system, and took on board 98% of the proposals submitted by Peter Hewson of AIMS.

However, Hewson insisted that it "cannot be considered joined-up working", because the Agency had decided to go ahead with the new system without resolving some major issues.

For AIMS, the biggest of these issues was the fact that new auditing system still scores plants on documentation and paperwork, which is not required by legislation. "The issue with documentation is that it is best practice, not a legislatory requirement," explained Hewson. "We wanted an audit system that reflected this and showed that lack of documentation did not mean non-compliance with legislation." He pointed out that, in many plants, the OV conducting the audit is working there day-in day-out. "We would rather a plant was judged on whether it is clean and not on whether it has the right paperwork," he said.

The inclusion of a welfare audit, which is not a European control, was also an issue for AIMS and SAMW. "It is a hygiene audit not a welfare audit and the question is whether it should be in or not. I don't mind it being in, but I do mind if we end up paying for it," said Anderson.

Kirby said he did not believe the requirement for documentation would be a big issue for plants. "Having a paperwork system to demonstrate you are fulfilling the requirements of the legislation is the only way you can really evidence that you are doing what you say you are doing what you ought to be doing," he said. He added it was unlikely plants would end up in court because they did not have the correct paperwork, and there was an appeal system in place for plants which felt they had been treated unfairly.

"Since this time last year, FSA staff have done nearly 3,000 audits and we have had 42 appeals, 19 of which were cancelled by the FBOs before we even began the independent review process," he said. "If the audit system was so broken, I would have thought we would have seen considerably more appeals than that, especially because we publish the audit results."

Kirby added that removing welfare auditing would require a policy change and would therefore be included in the second-stage of the audit review, which is looking at more fundamental changes to the system. He added that the FSA intended to set up a small industry group to work on these matters.

In the meantime, he said, the new system included several changes which were "quite useful to industry", including the ability for multiple operations on one site to come under one audit. "If you have a slaughterhouse and a cutting plant in the same site, last week we were carrying out two separate audits on two separate occasions, but now we have brought that all together. That is going to save the industry money," he explained.

There has also been a change to the classification terms to better reflect the quality of the plant, and a weighting of the questions so that areas directly related to public health carry more importance.

Anderson agreed that, documentation and welfare aside, the new system included some big improvements, most notably a change to how multi-species operators were scored, enabling businesses with robust controls in place to reduce their audit frequency. "We were pushing quite hard for that one, so we are happy they listened to us on it," he said.

Even Hewson admitted the new system was "better" than its previous format. "It is more weighted and easier to work," he said.

Going forward, it seems the speed of the second strategic stage of the review which will need approval from the FSA board will be key to industry and FSA relations. "My concern would be that stage two is a long process and we are stuck with this situation with serious questions about the audits for a long time. It is essential that stage two goes through quickly," said Anderson.

Kirby was unwilling to give a definite time-scale on stage two, but said he imagined it would take at least a year to go through. But he said he hoped the creation of an industry workforce would lead to quicker, more collaborative working, adding: "We are proposing some more wholesale changes over the next year or so. I have some interesting thoughts about how auditing should look in the future."

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