Fury at MHS cost increase

Meat bosses have reacted with fury to the Meat Hygiene Service's (MHS) move to raise charges by 8%, which take effect from today.

The news caught many in the industry by surprise, due to what the MHS described as "over-efficient" mailing. The change in charges was announced in letters sent out to plants earlier in March, following a period of consultation. However, industry representatives were still waiting for a response to that consultation exercise.

Stuart Roberts, director of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), said the first he knew of the increases, which take affect from 1 April, was when he visited a member and saw a copy of the letter from the MHS. "I had spoken to MHS on this several times in the last few weeks and had been told that it was still being looked at. Then I visited a plant and saw the letter, saying the charges would change on 1 April.

"We've not seen any results from the consultation or any feedback on our views at all. They just seem to have gone ahead and pushed through the increases without reference to any of the points we made in a joint industry letter."

Ian Anderson, executive manager of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, said there was a lack of transparency to the whole process. "We were consulted and opposed the increases for good reasons and we've heard nothing on that. The fact that we've had no feedback suggests the whole thing was a fait accompli."

He said the MHS had made some reductions in costs recently, but questioned where those savings have gone.

Roberts said the whole situation simply undermined any efforts by industry to work with the MHS. Anderson added: "At a time when industry is working with MHS on transformation, this makes no sense." He said the charges should have been frozen until a new system was in place.

Norman Bagley, policy director with the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, said the move should open up a wider debate: "The MHS should have shown serious signs of cost-cutting, but these increases have opened up a much fuller debate into full cost recovery and where we go from here."

A spokesman for the MHS said it was an error that "could have been better handled from the MHS". He said the MHS had devised a system to notify everyone of changes as closely as possible, to avoid affecting food business operators who are not members of an association. "On this occasion, FBOs received their notification earlier than intended, due to the over-efficiency of the mailing company."

He said the consultation results had been published online on the FSA website, which was the normal practice, but added: "There are improvements that need to be made to this process, and we would welcome a chance to discuss this."