Protest over full cost recovery for meat inspection

Meat industry leaders have united in opposition to Food Standards Agency (FSA) plans for full cost recovery and are now calling on the government to step into the debate.

In an open letter to Defra's Secretary of State Caroline Spelman, all the leading processing bodies and livestock industry organisations called on the minister to intervene in the hopes of avoiding "what we fear will be very adverse consequences for the meat and livestock industry".

The FSA, which the industry describes as a "high-cost monopoly public service provider", is currently consulting on proposals for full cost recovery for meat inspections, a move that could mean an additional £32m in costs imposed on the industry.

The letter from 13 organisations, including the National Farmers' Union, the British Meat Processors Association, the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers and the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, points out that, as far as industry is concerned, the FSA has failed to reduce its costs to a sufficient level. It said: "The cost of official controls chargeable to industry prior to transformation was just under £57m and is now said to be £55m, and this small decrease has occurred at a time when the industry has contracted considerably and the cost of official veterinarians to the FSA has gone down.

"Much more can and should be done. If the FSA cannot or will not do more to reduce its costs, an alternative delivery model should be examined."

The organisations warn the extra £32m in costs will simply be passed down the chain and will ultimately affect industry competitiveness and sustainability. "The meat industry, as part of the wider food industry, makes a valuable contribution to the national economy through domestic and export sales, and employment," added the letter. "The FSA's proposals will reduce this contribution. Further, ministers say they want to increase UK food production and are concerned about food security, but any further erosion of the industry's competitiveness and sustainability is inconsistent with these wider aims."

The letter called on Spelman to put off plans for full cost recovery until a full review of the FSA's delivery of meat inspection is carried out and market-tested in order to identify where further streamlining and efficiencies are possible.

Responding to the letter, a Defra spokesperson said: "We hope those with an interest in charges for meat inspections will take part in the FSA's consultation, so that decisions will be made based on all available information."

Andrew Rhodes, director of operations with the FSA, expressed disappointment at the letter. "We have already made significant efficiencies which are far higher than those stated. The total cost of delivering official controls in 2006/7 was £59.7m, which is the equivalent at today's prices to £68.9m. We have made a saving of £13.4m. We recognise there is more to do. As part of the current consultation, we have committed to further reduce costs by £5.5m to £50m over the next four years."

>>Open letter to the FSA by Peter Hewson

>>Food Standards Agency boss invites meat industry anger