Norman Bagley, Association of Independent Meat Suppliers

Professor Pennington has confirmed two truths we have known for ages: that hygiene controls vary unacceptably across the UK; and that the MHS self-audit has failed both industry and regulators alike.

The abattoir concerned had been recommended for licence refusal by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) Veterinary Meat Hygiene Adviser (VHMA), under both the current and the previous regulations. For years VMHAs, a small but fiercely independent group of professionals, have been telling the FSA that MHS enforcement was worse than useless. Although the MHS initiates large numbers of prosecutions, almost as if they have a litigation target, these are often irrelevant to public health.

A political decision was taken not to close the abattoir concerned, before the FSA was established and for reasons one can only guess at. For years after and despite full-time MHS staff at the premises, no meaningful MHS enforcement was taken. However, the blame cannot be laid solely at the feet of the local MHS staff. As late as 2004, the MHS internal audit even said the plant’s official veterinarian (OV) was doing a very good job! So there can be no faith in the ability of MHS to audit itself.

Professor Pennington was clearly frustrated that he could have cut and pasted much of the content of his earlier Wishaw E.coli report from years before and yet nothing had changed. Under the circumstances, this is difficult to forgive. So what was the response by MHS to Pennington? “We have changed the management.” True, in part, but not in the crucial areas of enforcement and audit. And it gets worse. The new tender for OV attendance by the hour has produced an entirely predictable result; rates for plant OVs driven down to £10-£14 per hour. These are the “enforcement officers” who will now be producing plant audits that include assessments such as “confidence in management”, which could set in train criminal prosecutions and licence revocations. The survival of a business threatened by a £10/hour vet! It is no wonder contractors are losing their best vets by the dozen.

Pennington clearly thought that nothing had changed. I have news for him: £10/hour vets can only make it worse. Further, the FSA intends to disband the VMHAs and move the entire technical oversight of MHS delivery to the MHS itself. This cannot be right and we surely must have a stronger independent veterinary audit based on the tried-and-tested VHMAs.

In my view, the MHS is currently conducting an exercise in passing responsibility to industry and evading all blame. One need look no further than its new “no trim” policy, which most experienced professional meat inspectors think is barmy. At least Northern Ireland has seen through that nonsense and allows MHIs to conduct minimal trimming as part of a team effort. The MHS board has promised support for the UK industry and teamwork but there is no team effort allowed here, only futile conflict.

So where from here? A strong experienced audit team of veterinary professionals, based round the current VHMAs, reporting directly to the FSA and, ultimately, its chief executive is surely a must. This team would carry out the high-level audit of MHS delivery, which the FSA is required to put in place by European law. It could also provide the veterinary professional expertise to support the team of lead vets out in the field and would thereby ensure effective and proportionate enforcement and not the current box-ticking that the MHS passes off as audit and which leads to inappropriate enforcement. This would once and for all provide a credible and transparent system of audit, which plant operators could respect and Professor Pennington could approve.