In safe hands

The meat and poultry industries are a safer place to work than they were 10 years ago — partly thanks to safer machinery and higher awareness among workers.

Injuries in the meat and poultry production sectors, and in wholesaling, have fallen by about 50% in the last decade, according to figures from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), which adds that the precise data should be treated with caution because of changes in the way some statistics are collected and in the collation of some types of information.

Nevertheless, the best available figures from the HSE suggest that, between 2001/2 and 2009/10, injuries dropped by 57% from 2,413 to 1,040. The number of major injuries dropped by 45% from
326 to 178. (All figures quoted are per 100,000 workers.)

According to machinery manufacturers and suppliers that serve the meat and poultry processing sectors, a number of factors have been fundamental to improvements in recent years, not least the introduction of European legislation.

During the 2001/10 period, there were a total of 14,443 injuries and nine workers died. Average injury incidence rates for the three years from 2005/06 to 2007/08 indicate that meat slaughtering saw 1,054 incidents, poultry slaughtering 1,459 incidents and meat and poultry further processing 1,427 incidents — all of them below the food and drink industry average of 1,470 incidents, but above the manufacturing sector in general where there were 913 incidents.

Machinery manufacturers and suppliers say one factor that has been fundamental to improvements in recent years has been the introduction of the CE mark, which provides the regulatory basis for the harmonisation of the essential health and safety requirements for machinery at European Union level. Essentially performing a dual function, the Directive not only promotes the free movement of machinery within the Single Market, but also guarantees a high level of protection to EU workers.

The CE, also known as the EC, is a mandatory mark for an estimated 70% of the machines sold on the EFTA and European Union markets, totalling 28 countries, and is often referred to as the ‘Trade Passport to Europe’ for non-EU products, says Wellkang Tech Consulting.

The first EEC Machinery Directive to meet requirements for CE marking was introduced in 1989, but it was the introduction of European Directive 2006/42/EC that raised safety awareness all around Europe and, as a result, the safety of equipment in the UK. The Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC was published on 9 June 2006 and was applicable from 29 December 2009, replacing the Machinery Directive 98/37/EC.

Evolving safety features

Marel, which supplies a wide range of machinery to the meat processing sector, says the safety aspects of its product designs are always evolving as new technology comes into the market. Terry Starkey, marketing consultant, says: “Examples of this include improved control systems that are more reliable and easier to maintain, upgraded servos for better-controlled emergency stops, and improved fixed machine-guarding that prevents customers running machines without guards after maintenance work has been done.”

Continuous product development by the suppliers has been matched by increased awareness within the processing sector itself. “Food manufacturers are more aware of health and safety requirements and, as a result, insist on CE certification for machinery and improved control over on-site engineering works,” says Starkey. “Risk assessments and method statements are usually required before work is allowed to commence. The enforcement of the Provision of Work Equipment Regulations has led to food factories carrying out their own risk assessments on complete lines, identifying potential hazards at transfer points between different manufacturers’ machines.”

In the case of Marel, integrated lines — the transfer points between machines — are risk-assessed to ensure a safe installation complete with CE certificate for the whole line, the company says.

Martin Wareham, preparation product manager for Interfood Technology, says that ensuring effective health and safety is as important to machinery suppliers as it is to meat processing businesses. “Among the wide range of equipment that we supply are mixers and grinders from Danish manufacturer Carnitech, which could obviously be very dangerous if safety measures were not an integral part of the design. These include trip wires around all open-top mixing vessels, interlocked lids that are standard on some models and available as an option on others, and platforms at the sides of machines that are all interlocked and guarded, with an automatic cut-off activated if a gate is lifted to access the platform.

“Cutting off a machine to prevent an incident happening in the first place is obviously the ideal scenario, but being able to stop it if something does happen is also important. Common emergency stop buttons, known as ‘e-stops’, on any line system requiring just one button to be hit to stop the entire line, are an example.” 

Wareham says the mixers that Interfood supplies have dual button jog controls for cleaning, a safety feature that has been introduced, so that two hands are required to jog the machine. “On the new touchscreens, access to the jog function is only available to designated cleaning crew through password protection. The various levels of password protection also enable different levels of access for engineers and managers, who have higher access to create new programmes and/or recipes, while our own Interfood engineers have passwords that provide total access for history, functionality and so on.”  

The Manual Handling Regulations are designed to prevent injuries from lifting. Interfood’s range of grinders feature crane davit systems to remove the need for the lifting of heavy components. The new generation of grinding machines are also captive to the machine, with hinges to move them out of the way. Bowl choppers, supplied by German manufacturer K&G Wetter, have standard barriers and guards to stop people reaching in. Another safety feature are noise reduction lids, which stop the machine running at higher revs until it is fully closed.

Mark Bishop, joint managing director of Interfood, says it is essential to go beyond simply ensuring safety features are built into the design of food equipment. “It is also vital to recognise that, in many accidents, human error is all too often a contributory factor,” he says. “Making sure that those who will be operating the machinery have been trained properly is key. This is not just about optimising productivity, although this is clearly important, but also about the operatives knowing how to use the machine safely. Most processors work on a shift basis, so it is about training all those who are likely to come into contact with a machine. That is why we offer a full training programme, for both day and night shifts, to ensure that everybody has the correct level of understanding required.”

Hygiene has to be fundamental in the machines and the processes too, says Bishop. “Nobody wants to be subjected to the nightmare of a product recall and the lasting damage this can do to a brand and a business. But if a problem does have to be investigated, then full traceability is also critical.”

Investment priorities

Demand for equipment and machinery falls into two camps, with the large and the small processors having different priorities. There is also a divide in the UK between the amount of automated equipment used at the primary processing and the further processing parts of the business. The bigger processors are focused on meeting the needs of the multiple retailers, so their investment plans are at a different level to the rest of the industry. “At one extreme, we see Cranswick building a new all-singing, all-dancing abattoir and pack plant,” says Martin Palmer, head of MLC Consulting. “We’ve seen investment in new packing plants by Dovecote Park, ABP, and Dawn, but not a huge investment in basic slaughtering equipment. Most of the money is going downstream, so to speak, after the point of chilling.”

On the slaughter side, the investment in technology has not been great, says Palmer. “Labour-saving devices have been developed, but plants are still based on the Model T Ford assembly line, with men at stations doing specific jobs.”

Whether new developments in processing line equipment at the primary end of production will largely supersede the current production model any time soon remains to be seen.

Although there are exceptions, Palmer says small and medium abattoirs have not moved forwards a great deal, except to upgrade to reach minimum standards. There are now more computer-controlled systems than before, and computer-linked weighing machines are now commonplace. Most abattoirs selling and packing red meat will have a gas-flush machine. But the primary processing industry as a whole has not really developed beyond these basic stages as yet. The sector is reluctant to invest in often expensive and sophisticated machinery unless it can be demonstrated to do jobs far more quickly and efficiently compared to present systems.

“Visual carcase assessment has not really caught on, for example, because it does not deliver much more than a trained man can do,” says Palmer. “The price of equipment is hundreds of thousands of pounds — that’s a lot of labour cost increases.”

Indeed, the pig and pork processing industry has even reverted to using the most basic of technology — an optical probe. Palmer says the sector has been through computer-aided, multi-probe technology, but has asked, “Why invest in hugely expensive technology when it does not really deliver any more than the simple equipment can do?”

Recently, a Chinese delegation has been interested in how the UK manages technology. From the point of stunning, it is largely a manual operation in this country. Depending on the size of plant, it gets more automated with machinery and technology further down the line after the animal has been killed.
In other countries the story is different, because of different farming and meat production and processing practices. Some of the equipment installed on slaughter lines in the US has led the way in steam sterilisation, for example. “Their industry is producing a very dirty animal because of the feedlot system,” says Palmer. “They have a huge problem with surface meat contamination in the US and there is an awful lot of technology that has gone into trying to solve it. The FSA insists on clean animals here.”

Cut to fit

New technology continues to grow apace — the amount of robotics is increasing in Brazil, the US, Australia and sterilisation using irradiation is coming on board in some countries.

In the UK, though, it is downstream at the portion cutting and packing stage that technology comes into its own, where one machine can cost up to £250,000. A lot has been invested in machines that reduce meat wastage and can cut and trim meat from overweight, out-of-spec cattle that are delivered to plants. Cutting and portion control technology have also helped solve problems with lack of skilled staff, high wages and supermarket demands for standardisation, says Palmer.

Greater role for technology

Technology may yet come to play a future part in meat inspection. As part of its remit, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is engaged in a long-term project to review the current system of meat hygiene inspection in plants, with the aim of modernising it by 2015 or some time after. The review is separate from any considerations over full cost recovery of meat inspection from the industry.

Any recommendations for changes to inspection procedures could lead to even more sophisticated types of machinery being installed on plant processing lines. Meat controls are currently based on a traditional inspection approach, developed more than 100 years ago to tackle the public health concerns of that era, such as parasites and defects visible to the naked eye. Today, the main cause of food-borne disease is microbiological, including threats such as bacteria campylobacter, salmonella and E.coli, which cannot be adequately tackled using traditional inspection methods, says the FSA.

The aim will be to improve public health protection while delivering a more risk-based, effective and proportionate system for official controls on meat, it adds. Proposals are likely to take account of animal health and welfare considerations as well. Any proposals will involve talks with other European Union member states, a lengthy process that is unlikely to produce changes to meat hygiene controls until at least 2015.

Modernising meat hygiene inspection is a strategic priority of the FSA’s Strategy for 2010–2015, although it acknowledges that any EU regulatory changes can only be achieved if they are supported by robust scientific evidence and following negotiations with other Member States. The FSA is currently funding research to test and challenge the principles on which the current system was built. Five research projects were commissioned in 2010, which focused on: post-mortem inspection tasks; use of inspection data; analysis of roles, such as official veterinarian presence when plant inspection assistants carry out post-mortem inspection of poultry; requirements for outdoor pig processing; and ante-mortem inspection of young/prime animals and poultry.

The FSA says these projects are now completed. The outcome of this research is being shared with other Member States and will inform the work of EFSA and the Commission in this area. The findings will be published once the results have been evaluated by independent experts.

Further research is now planned for this year and will include: an evaluation of food chain information (FCI) and collection and communication of inspection results (CCIR) for all species; the trial of visual inspection for fattening pigs from non-controlled housing conditions; qualitative risk assessment of visual inspection of red meat and farmed/wild large game – all ages and species other than swine; and the trial of the use of plant inspection assistants in approved game handling establishments — small and large wild game.

The FSA recently put this research work out to tender and is currently appraising the bids received in response. It is expected that this second tranche of research will start in July or August 2011.
Of concern to machinery companies will be the outcome of current talks over full cost recovery of meat inspection from the industry, for if plants are expected to pay more, it could affect the amount of money they have to invest in new processing line machinery. The FSA held four public meetings in different parts of England during May about proposals to charge the UK meat industry the full cost of official controls on meat. The open meetings, held in Durham, Bath, Carlisle and Colchester, followed a consultation with the industry. Hosted by FSA board members and policy officials, the meetings aimed to provide an opportunity to air proposals and share views.

As MTJ went to press with this feature, the FSA Board itself was due to meet to discuss future charging policy for official meat controls. The comments made at the public meetings were due to be included in the evidence that the Board was to consider as part of its decision-making process.

Open meetings in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have a different system through which to hear the views of stakeholders, took place during the same week as the public meetings in England.
The prospect of full cost recovery for plants is adding to processing companies’ growing worries about rising costs. Both concerns are likely to reduce confidence over future investment in plant technology until variable costs, such as fuel, begin to fall and the whole issue of full cost recovery is resolved.

Processors are under a lot of pressure from rising costs. John Dracup, livestock procurement director of Vion, says: “Cost structures are huge. Packaging is a big cost because it is petrochemical-related. The cost of everything seems to be going up.”

Against such a backdrop, the threat of full cost recovery from the FSA is a major concern for processors. “It’s something that the industry continues to lobby around to get greater transparency,” says Dracup.

“We’re not saying we don’t want inspection per se, but an inspection system where the cost charging structure is transparent. There needs to be statutory inspection implemented on a risk-based approach, with business operators audited and the level of inspection based on the level of compliance achieved. Those operating on a professional level should get a lower level of inspection on-site provided they can continue to come up to the level required by the audit. Those that do not come up to the required level should get more inspections and end up paying more.”

Norman Bagley, policy director at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, insists that the industry would be able to pay the full cost of FSA official controls if they were risk-based and delivered efficiently.

“The UK already pays more than other Member States and the FSA is proposing to double its charges,” he claims. “At present, the industry and taxpayers are subsidising an inefficient and ineffective system that employs too many officials and carries overheads that no other Member State’s industry has to fund. Those overheads are even heaped on staff, who are contracted in at rates that already include management and pension costs. It’s not just duplication, it’s scandalous.”

On top of these concerns are worries that moves by Scotland to have its own, separate inspection service could further unbalance the cost structure. The possibility of Scotland acquiring its own meat inspection service would be of concern to processors if it was not structured appropriately, says Dracup. “There are fewer smaller processors in Scotland, so a structure geared to bigger operators would be appropriate there. “We’re not looking for gold-plating of standards for what is effectively a public health measure.”

Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors Association, acknowledges that recent election results have probably increased the possibility of Scotland seeking control over its own meat inspection, and that its costs would be lower, given the greater concentration of Scottish plants in a smaller geographical area. Any such move from Scotland would open up the debate about how the inspection system is delivered in England and Wales, he says.

Ian Anderson, executive manager of the Scottish Meat Wholesalers Association (SAMW), adds: “We have known for a long time that the unit cost of inspection in Scotland is much less than it is in England and Wales. We have larger companies, so they can achieve better economies of scale. By contrast, in England, there are still a quite a large number of smaller plants that the inspection service finds difficult, because they are working only a few days a week or they have short-time working. They have to juggle inspection resources to cover all that. In Scotland, there are quite a large number of full throughput plants.”

Initially, a general paper on Scottish meat inspection was produced. With the recent elections out of the way, the SAMW is now likely to contact all the other meat trade organisations in Scotland to develop the paper, with a view to putting proposals to Scottish ministers. “The agreement between Scottish bodies at the moment is on the concept and we have to put flesh on the bones, saying how we think it should work and what the choices are,” explains Anderson.

Norman Bagley says he does not want to stand in the way of Scotland having its own inspection service if that country wants it, but notes that it could have implications for English processors. “At the moment, Scotland is contributing to the back office costs of the central FSA and, if the industry in England is stuck with all those costs, they are not going to be too impressed.”

The FSA says it has noted the proposal from SAMW and NFU Scotland to Scottish Ministers regarding a separate meat inspection system for Scotland. A spokesman says: “Now that the election is over, the FSA may be asked to discuss this issue with Scottish ministers and we will be happy to do so.”

Coping with the economy

Machinery suppliers will be heartened to hear that, although it has been a challenging time for the meat industry, some think the sector is coping well with the recession and its aftermath. Norman Bagley says: “The trade for meat has been difficult domestically, although export demand has been good. Overall, the sector has come through a difficult time – better than people might have expected. It has pulled through very well. Relatively speaking, there have been very few business failures when it had been expected we would have had a number.”

A number of factors have helped, he says. “There have been increased prices for hides and skins, and the cost of waste removal has become very competitive again. Supplies of domestic beef have become very tight, but the pound has gone in the right direction, so exports are very strong. Imports have become scarce and expensive, so the trade is supply-driven.”

Although the poor economic outlook and events on the international scene have driven up many costs over the past 18 months, many smaller processors have coped, because they have diversified their business. “Many have become pretty efficient in the last few years, with less exposure to bad debts.

They have become a much broader businesses, with less reliance on the buying and selling of meat. Ten years ago many of my members would have been selling pretty much all that they slaughtered as commodity meat at wholesale prices. Now, less than half is wholesaled, with more service contract work for companies further up the supply chain.”

This has come about because of a huge expansion in the number of smaller businesses trading meat and selling directly to the public, says Bagley. Although sales through farm shops are small, the shops themselves have been a huge shop window for quality meat from reliable sources, resulting in more people buying meat direct from other sources, he said.

Looking ahead

The drive for machinery that further improves traceability of meat and helps to preserve its high quality during processing is going to be even more important in the future according to some. Provenance and quality are major drivers and are becoming even more important as prices increase, says Dracup. “We’re starting to move into another world when it comes to quality, provenance and traceability, because current economic conditions demand it. Rather than just shopping on price, people are looking for value
for money.”