Feedback from MHS inspectors is valued

I am responding to the article 'Healthy concerns', published in the last edition of MTJ (15 May 2009) which contained an anonymous interview with a Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) inspector.

Firstly, I would like to agree wholeheartedly with the anonymous inspector's view that meat inspectors are a vital part of the regulatory system we have in place to ensure safe meat is produced from well cared-for, healthy animals. Meat inspectors are the backbone of the MHS. They are highly trained, experienced individuals who are an asset to the meat industry and I am proud of them. But we all have to clearly understand that food safety rests fully with Food Business Operators (FBOs). The role of our inspectors is to verify that FBOs operate good hygienic practices effectively and according to regulations, together with undertaking statutory post-mortem inspection.

Both the FSA and MHS are determined to ensure that FBOs fully meet their responsibilities for producing safe food, but this will not happen if MHS staff cover up poor FBO practices. For example, if MHS inspectors trim contamination off carcases, this masks the root cause of the problem and means that FBOs are less likely to take the action necessary to improve dressing techniques and reduce the risk to public health. The MHS business directors recently wrote to both FBOs and MHS operational staff to clarify responsibilities for presenting 'clean' carcases. I am pleased to note that the anonymous inspector feels this policy has led to improvements.

What we have been doing through the transformation programme is to ensure that the MHS has the correct level of resources for the job we do today in 2009. This means recognising that the 2006 Regulations did actually mean a change of approach. Driven by the BSE crisis in the 1990s, the approach previously taken was to throw government resources at food safety issues. Ten-plus years on, this is unsustainable and disproportionate. Through working with industry to ensure that everyone understands their responsibilities for producing safe meat, we can start to reduce the frequency of some MHS checks - for example on SRM. But meat inspectors continue to have an essential role to play in reporting to their managers any practices in an abattoir that may be increasing the public health risk. It is clearly in no one's interest - neither the meat industry nor the MHS - to ignore poor practice in slaughterhouses. We have changed our operational structure to make our MHS management system more localised and supportive. I have every confidence that these new managers will investigate any concern raised by an inspector and will support them for making it.

Inspectors can also use the MHS whistle-blowing system, anonymously. But a food safety concern has to be reported to MHS management before we can take any corrective action.

It is openly known that the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is pursuing future EC regulatory reform to make official controls in slaughterhouses more risk-based and proportionate. However, self-regulation of any part of the food industry is not possible under European law. The FSA does not support self-regulation in the meat industry and there is no long-term aim of introducing self-regulation.

Over the past two years, there has been much change in the MHS, and this can be very unsettling for those affected. Not surprisingly, inspectors are concerned about the negotiations to modernise the terms and conditions of employment for inspection staff, which haven't changed much for 15 years. I am determined, however, to reach a negotiated settlement and am clear that we should pay a fair wage to MHS inspectors for the hours worked.

MHS inspectors are committed to protecting public health and I value their opinions and feedback. The new operational management structure only went fully live in February this year, and I and MHS management are getting out and about to meet staff face-to-face. The numerous and widespread locations where our staff are based across the whole of GB pose a challenge not faced by many organisations and one that will take time and innovative approaches to overcome.

It is clear that the role of meat inspectors in slaughterhouses is essential and this is recognised not only by me, but by the FSA and, I believe, the meat industry as well.