FSA publishes controversial bullying allegation list

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has today (29 March) published the names of meat plants where alleged incidents of bullying and harassment have been reported by FSA staff.

The Agency published the information in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from UNISON. It said that, under FOI legislation, it had a general duty to disclose the information in the public interest and added that publication of the information was in line with its commitment to openness and transparency.

The report includes the names of meat plants where allegations of bullying and harrassment were reported between 31 August 2009 and 31 August 2011. These include allegations of physical assualt, aggressive behaviour, verbal abuse, intimidation and malicious damage to property.

However, because the FOI request was for reported incidents only, the report does not include the outcomes of investigations into the allegations or responses from the meat plants. The FSA said that it should therefore not be assumed that any particular incident was formally investigated and/or action taken in respect of it, and that no assumptions should be made about an FBO’s liability or responsibility for the reported incident.

The publication has been met with fury from meat industry leaders who took legal action in an attempt to prevent the FSA from publishing the information.

Norman Bagley, director of the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, said: "A number of AIMS members have had allegations made against them about bullying or harassment of staff at their plants  which members considered might in be untrue.

"Following a Freedom of Information Act request FSA have indicated they wish to publish those allegations despite the risk that untrue allegations might thereby be made public. We obtained more time to review these allegations but it has in some case proved very difficult to challenge the allegations as in some case what is being alleged as having happened is very unclear.

"In the circumstances it has not been possible to restrain the publications and we are disappointed that FSA would not allow more time for the issues to be examined and resolved."

Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors Association, said: “No bullying or harassment in the workplace is acceptable. Where it occurs, it must be tackled. But, here, the FSA is publishing the names of businesses without having properly investigated and substantiated what are reported alleged incidents.”

“This is an open licence for any organisation or individual with a political motivation or a grudge against a business or the industry more widely to make any malicious allegation with impunity, with potentially serious reputational and commercial consequences for the businesses affected. This flies in the face of natural justice, and is not right or fair.

“The FSA should properly investigate and substantiate incidents through independent channels. It needs to get a proper handle on the scale and nature of the issue, so that the industry and the Agency can work together to tackle any problems on the basis of objective information, not unsubstantiated allegations.”

The FSA did withold the names of some of the smaller plants where allegations had been made, over fears that it would be easier to identify the individuals involved. A spokesperson said that these names were withheld to comply with Data Protection Act rules, in accordance with the section 40(2) exemption under the FOI Act.