Partnership approach is welcomed

It was very encouraging to read in the last edition of the MTJ that Geoff Ogle and Peter Styler are committing the MHS to working in partnership with industry.

What a difference to Steve McGrath's take on the situation a few weeks earlier, that total responsibility for food safety and animal welfare lay with operators and the only role of the MHS was to verify compliance.

We look forward to this new working relationship, but there are two inhibiting factors: one is the ingrained attitude of MHS staff, who have been encouraged over the years to believe that prosecution, rather than food safety, equals success, irrespective of whether or not it is in the public interest; the other is the system Geoff and Peter have inherited, in which audits of operators' controls, and subsequent enforcement activities, are largely carried out by official veterinarians (OVs), who, through no fault of their own, are inexperienced.

Both these factors could be negated if the FSA went down the road that AIMS is advocating of restricting the role of the plant OV to carrying out ante and post-mortem inspections and associated duties and entrusting the audit of operators' controls to a small number of vets, with relevant experience, the outcomes of which industry would have no problems in accepting.

It surprised me to learn that the MHS wants to help premises comply, not just shut them. Maybe they realise that at least some of these premises are rather good in hygienic terms, but are owned by operators who have occasionally rebelled against constant interference.

I do take issue with Geoff and Peter's comment about improvements in efficiency, and the suggestion that the MHS has done more than industry. No doubt, the MHS has "picked the low fruit", but it remains far from efficient. The contracting system they have inherited can never deliver an efficient service. Contractors' profits are totally dependent on maximising the hours of OVs and meat inspectors and until the system is replaced by one that rewards efficiency, the MHS will never be as efficient as industry.

Of course, there are things industry could do to make the MHS more efficient, but there is far more the MHS could do to change its working practices to meet the needs of commercial operations.

Fortunately, Geoff and Peter could still find the resources to rebuild a fit-for-purpose meat inspectorate. There are veterinarians and meat inspectors who want to protect public health, as well as contractors with the vision to organise that protection cost-effectively.

There are also some experienced Veterinarian Meat Hygiene Advisers left, who could form the nucleus of an audit team that industry would have confidence in.