Meat industry bodies take issue with FSA audit paper

It is stupid to categorise meat businesses as anything other than “professional and unprofessional”, agricultural manager for ABP Stuart Roberts told the Food Standards Agency (FSA) yesterday.

Roberts was speaking at an FSA Board meeting in Aberdeen on the issue of compliance in the meat industry, following the publication of a paper on the issue by FSA director of operations Andrew Rhodes.

The paper provoked a passionate discussion after Roberts’ statement. However, the issue of how businesses are categorised was not the only sore point in the room, but rather the more serious subject of the number of carcases categorised as “contaminated” following an FSA audit.

Flawed system

The way the audit was carried out has aggravated industry organisations, including the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), the British Poultry Council (BPC), the National Federation of Meat & Food Traders (NFMT) and the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW). In a joint statement, read at the meeting, they said: “The vast majority of GB meat plants continue to have serious concerns about the audit system, on which these compliance data are founded. We believe the existing audit system is flawed in a number of respects: its structure, the way compliance information is presented and its subjectivity.”

The organisations also called for more independent oversight of the audit system to ensure it was “credible”.

Data in the report indicated that 34.5% of slaughterhouses in the UK were “not broadly compliant” with standards, while 3.8% were a “cause for concern”, following carcase inspections. However, meat business representatives have said the current audit system and the data found as a result are flawed.

They added: “The meat industry is committed to improving hygiene standards, but we believe the publication of this data, before reform of the audit system is completed, is unfortunate, and that the information contained in the executive’s paper should be treated with considerable caution.”

Misinformed data

This issue was echoed by Alan McNaughton, site director of Scottish meat business Portlethen, who, along with Roberts, was one of three industry guests on the board to help discuss the paper. He said the data was taken from carcases that were nowhere near the end of the line.

“Meat is not hitting the consumer in this form,” he claimed. “This is a measure taken at a point on the slaughter line before the spinal cord is removed.”

Countering the claim, Rhodes said: “In terms of the contamination discussed in this paper – this is a final inspection; this is the last point in the process when it is effectively going to be released to the consumer. This is the point where the business says to us, ‘this is ready’.”

Meanwhile, Roberts said: “We do have some genuine concerns about the audit and the time it is taking to do it. There’s almost a tone here that compliance is optional – and it is not optional.”

He said the FSA needed to be more robust in its handling of those businesses that were not compliant, as it reflected poorly on the whole industry.

Process manager Steve Moore, on the other hand, had grievance with the way large retailers treated companies complying with the rules and the law. “The big retailers take for granted that we comply with the law,” he said, adding that those smaller businesses not in compliance did not feel the threat of losing a big customer.