Mission impossible

Not many people in the industry envy the project Geoff Tierney has been tasked with, as the man appointed by the Food Standards Agency to review meat hygiene controls. Keren Sall reports

Many have likened it to a Mission

Impossible. His in-depth report has aimed to be fair to all sectors of the industry and as such has won him criti-cisms and plaudits alike. It all seemed as if it was going to head towards a potentially explosive FSA confrontation with the meat industry and the Meat Hygiene Service at its 19 July board meeting in Cardiff.

Mounting industry anger over government proposals towards full cost recovery for hygiene inspection controls, combined with MHS suggestions that it cut base-line costs by 14% by 2009-10, was expressed by various bodies following the publication of an FSA paper by programme manager Geoff Tierney a week prior to the FSA board meeting. But at that board meeting, the FSA took note of the temperature and defused industry dissatisfaction, as well as a potential conflict with Unison.

giving MHS a chance

While the meat industry criticised and called for a radical change to the MHS charging structure, Geoff Tierney proposed that the MHS be given a chance to show that it could meet the challenging targets, which would include a new charging system that would be developed in consultation with stakeholders. By doing this, Tierney has not incurred the wrath of Unison, which backed the option of a transformed meat hygiene service, as opposed to a plan suggesting it be broken up and licences granted to private firms to carry out inspections - an idea mooted by the industry.

The MHS, headed by Steve McGrath, now has to show it can transform itself into an inspection body that the industry is happy to keep. If it does not, it will just have itself to blame for its demise and the FSA Control Body or pilot, which will be set up, will take over from the MHS.

At its board meeting, the FSA also revealed its plans to scrap the Meat Hygiene Policy and replace it with an Advisory Board with a smaller number of representatives from bodies affected by changes in meat hygiene controls, such as consumers, producers and processors. "The Advisory Body will have more influence in shaping controls and how they evolve," explained FSA veterinary director Alick Simmons.


Areas in which the FSA believes meat hygiene inspection costs can be reduced is to introduce flexibilities, where European regulations allow, such as the greater use of Plant Inspection Assistants (PIAs) in the poultry sector. "We have to look at areas where there are opportunities for discharging inspection duties to properly trained personnel and are working with the British Poultry Council on this," says Simmons.

He would also like to see pig inspection controls revisited by the European Authority. The FSA is also moving towards risk-based SRM removal and plans to reduce the amount of MHS effort in this area. "It is the FBO's res-ponsibility and we should be relying on industry to take this up," says Simmons.

relief at outcome

Norman Bagley, policy director at the Association of Independent Meat Inspectors, expressed relief at the FSA board meeting's outcome. He says the MHS proposals were exposed as totally inadequate, and failure to radically reduce their cost base and improve delivery by next spring should automatically trigger the pilot control body option.

"The FSA board made it crystal clear that the present situation could not go on and that the transformed MHS proposal could only be suppor-ted if the competitive control body

alternative was being worked up at the same time. This was to ensure that the MHS, consumers and industry alike were left in no doubt as to the board's intentions, which are that enough is enough."

Alistair Donaldson, executive mana-ger of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, also felt the FSA board meeting outcome was fairly positive. "I believe the plan for a pilot trial alongside the MHS and setting up of an Advisory Board are good moves as they allow us to provide clear input into the way forward." But he warned there was still a lot of work to be done by spring next year.

While the National Farmers' Union has welcomed the FSA board's

decision to align meat hygiene regulations more closely with the regulation of the rest of the food chain, it has expressed concern about the implementation of full cost recovery and the need for any reduction in inspection charges to be passed back to the