Under Scrutiny: Auditing argument

Last month, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) went ahead with its controversial plans to publish the names of meat plants it deemed a ‘cause for concern’. This has prompted a slew of furious comments from the industry, which said that the move had been badly handled and would lead to a confusing ‘league table’ of plants, based on subjective, inconsistent audits and historic information.

The FSA originally adopted the ‘cause for concern’ list back in October 2009, after adapting the audit score system to identify 
plants that were falling below the required standards — but which did not pose an immediate threat to public health.

In January 2011, FSA chief executive Tim Smith proposed publishing a list of operators that had been non-compliant for a period of 12 months or more, to encourage businesses  that were persistently non-compliant to improve, although the FSA board blocked the decision. The agency subsequently published the ‘cause for concern’ list, after receiving a Freedom of Information Act request, a U-turn which prompted a furious reaction from the meat industry.

The names of eight different establishments were published on the FSA website on 23 January, only a week after the first tranche of monthly audit reports for approved meat plants in England, Scotland and Wales were published on the FSA website, which caused the industry to call for an overhaul of the auditing system. 

However Andrew Rhodes, director of operations at the FSA has defended the FSA’s decisions to publish and denied that there are inherent flaws in the way that audits are carried out. He said the auditing review process, which the FSA is rolling out in April, would help to improve the presentation of audits to make them clearer to understand and easier to publish, but should not be seen as indicative of underlying problems.  

“This is about continuous improvement,” he told Meat Trades Journal. “It’s not because we think the system is flawed — in fact the evidence suggests otherwise. We’ve got an excellent system. It’s working incredibly effectively and it will continue to do so.

“From October 2009 to August 2011, we’ve seen a 34% improvement in compliance in the meat industry — so this system is quite clearly working and it has helped drive up standards in the industry.”

Rhodes pointed out that the ‘cause for concern’ list now contained less than 1% of all regulated meat plants, and that plants named were not an immediate risk to the public. He also pointed out that food business operators (FBOs) that are not satisfied with the outcome of an FSA audit have 28 days to appeal when they receive the results — but that none of them did so.

“Plants can, of course, request an earlier audit if they want to do so and there are plants that have done that — where they’ve entered cause for concern, they’ve made the changes and asked for an earlier audit. We will always help a plant where we can. 

“This is not about a black and white dividing line between something that is deadly and everything else that is perfect,” he said.

“Obviously there are levels of compliance and, as plants become more and more non-compliant, we reach a point where we say they are a cause for concern, which means that they are at an increased risk of having problems.”

However, one plant told the MTJ that appealing was likely to increase the burden on plants. 
Although the FSA maintains that, in practice, there tends to be a decline over time before a plant reaches this point, the published list does not only highlight plants that have been non-compliant for a specified period of time, as originally mooted.

The industry has said it is unfair to ‘name and shame’ plants on the basis of one, subjective audit. It has also criticised the FSA for focusing on low-risk plants and forgetting the wider picture. 
Peter Hewson, the former deputy veterinary director of the FSA, now a consultant to the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) told MTJ: “One does wonder why the FSA is putting so much effort into plants of low risk, when it would be more worthwhile — in public health terms — if they put their effort into plants that are a risk to public health. 

“They are getting the wrong 
focus on the thing,” he said. “Everyone agrees that the publication of audits is a good thing, as long as it is reliable. But when it’s not, it’s a problem.”

He has called on the FSA to start talking to the industry, claiming that this is not happening at present.

He said: “Industry pays and industry should have a say in how these thing are delivered. Audits should be useful to industry, but industry doesn’t really value them. It would value them — and did — when they were carried out by a relatively small team of experienced people, who could help them. But these inconsistent audits aren’t a great deal of help.”