MHS to consult on 12% charge increase

The red meat industry has been left despondent after Food Standard's bosses agreed to consult on raising Meat Hygiene Service charges by 12% for 2008/09.

The FSA board meeting in Cardiff today also agreed to consult on a proposal to introduce time-based charging for MHS services and to introduce charges for controls on the removal of Specified Risk Material.

However, the meat sector has been left reeling by the decision to increase charges at a time when MHS is being transformed to reduce its costs.

Stuart Roberts, director of the BMPA, said the industry was very disappointed: "We feel 12% is completely unjust given the fact there's still huge scope to make the service more efficient and more effective."

Subject to the views of Ministers there will now be a full public consultation beginning in September.

A previous public consultation saw MHS charges increase 8% this year, despite industry objections.

Norman Bagley, director of AIMS, agreed that the 12% was unjustified and said the staff optimisation process MHS was undergoing had the potential to render the increase unnecessary.

However, he said he did see some positive signs: "At previous board meetings MHS has tried to drive year on year significant increases like this 12%.

"This time they've okayed the 12% but vetoed any talk of increases in the years following, and that has some positive aspects."

The decision on time-based charging has split the industry, with some elements welcoming it, while others express fears contractors will look to maximise hours.

However, Roberts said: "Whilst we are disappointed with the decision to consult on a 12% increase we are also pleased that through a time based system the industry will for the first time ever be able to reduce their MHS bill without reducing their throughput. It is now vital that the industry engage proactively to drive mhs efficiencies in all meat premisis."

FSA chief executive Tim Smith said: "The board has made an important decision today. I am pleased that this decision has been reached as I believe it will go a long way to preserving an industry about which the country is rightly proud. British meat stands for quality and it's important that we take this opportunity to make improvements to the inspection regime and maintain standards of public health and animal welfare in the business for many years to come.

"We've thought long and hard about the proposed increase in charging. I think everyone is agreed that the level of subsidy from government to the industry has been too high in recent years and the changes we are proposing should ensure that the system will become fairer for both the industry and the taxpayer. The MHS is making huge strides on its own cost reduction plan. Its five regional offices are in the process of being closed and the gross cost of operations will have fallen by £14.4m by 2009/10.

"I am committed to making sure that there is continuing support for the smallest operators. The FSA will continue to play its part in givingconfidence and protection to all parts of the industry to help it to deliver to the consumer the safest and best product possible."

He added that while the proposed increases will reduce the subsidy to the industry in Great Britain from £28m to £25m, the MHS' overall plan is to reduce operating costs of £91m to £74m by 2012/13.