FSA in U-turn on MHS charges

The meat industry has welcomed the Food Standard Agency's (FSA) U-turn on increasing meat hygiene charging as a "pleasant surprise".

Food safety bosses have scrapped plans to introduce increases to Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) charging after running into opposition in the devolved UK authorities. However, the FSA has confirmed the MHS will move to a system of time-based charging when delivering official controls in meat plants.

Stuart Roberts, director of the British Meat Processors' Association, said: "The news that the FSA is not pursuing the extra increases is good news for the industry. We do welcome pleasant surprises like this.

"The increase was something we argued against and the change takes what was a positive package in terms of business agreements and time-based charging and makes it even more positive."

However, some in the sector remain concerned. Norman Bagley, policy director with the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers, said: "The bigger question now is how the hourly charge is administered through the discount system, and how it all impinges on the necessary flexibility of operating hours, especially in the contract slaughter plants and at what cost? There's still a great deal to be resolved and some serious concerns remain."

Ian Anderson, chief executive of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, said: "We welcome the decision to defer an increase, but there is no guarantee on charges for the future and our longer-term view remains as before."

The FSA board had voted for a 4% increase in the charges to processors. But this plan reportedly met with opposition from devolved authorities, particularly Northern Ireland, and the FSA has now performed a U-turn.

The shift to time-based charging, effective from the end of September, and the lack of increase potentially mean processors could even end up cutting the cost of MHS inspection.

Tim Smith, FSA chief executive, said: "We are pleased that we have reached agreement on the move to time-based charging. That provides a good platform for the MHS and DARD [in Northern Ireland] to continue working closely with the industry to deliver the official controls in the most efficient way. It was clear that there was concern about the introduction of a 4% increase, so there will be no increase in charges at this time."

While no official comment was made on the impact the turnaround would have, it was understood that the FSA was concerned about the effect it would have on the pace of MHS transformation, with savings needed to be made from somewhere.