During the BSE crisis I visited a local butcher, Mr Morris in South Kilworth, and was offered the opportunity to see his small abattoir. In the small slaughter house, to my astonishment, I watched three men working, while four men, armed with clipboards, looked on and criticised. This is surely an insane level of inspection — and indeed of box-ticking. No wonder meat is so expensive,. No wonder so many small abattoirs are closing.
Last Sunday, Nov 15th, I attended a meeting with the British Meat Inspectors Association at the Ram Jam Inn on the A1 in Rutland, and was interested to establish whether the over-inspection I had observed several years ago remained the norm.
I was informed that unfortunately it did. Apparently the over-manning could have arisen primarily from a misinterpretation of the word “vet” or “veterinarian” in EU legislation. We choose to interpret this term as a fully qualified veterinary surgeon. On the Continent, however, they expect a much lower level of qualification. In the trade in Britain, many believe that a qualified British Meat Inspector is roughly what the EU legislation intends by the term “vet”, and that the employment of vets alongside Meat Inspectors is effectively redundant.
Ten years ago, the vets were mainly British. They were well-qualified and experienced, and they commanded the respect of the abattoir operators. But today, many of the vets in our slaughter-houses are from other EU member states, such as Spain. They are frequently less well qualified and experienced, are poorly paid, and often have problems with the English language. They are unable to command the respect of Food Business Operators (FBOs) and so are potentially unable to ensure high standards are maintained or reached. Moreover the vet is assumed to be senior to the Meat Inspector, so if the vet cannot command respect, then the advice of the Meat Inspector is devalued too.
The Food Standards Authority (FSA) wants to change all this. It is proposing a new, very limited set of qualifications for Meat Inspectors. They will study a narrower syllabus in a short course, for example, white meat or red meat or offal, and not the complete range. The FSA is also proposing that Meat Inspectors will no longer be independent but may be employed part-time by the FBO for inspection work, and the rest of their time will be spent in other capacities in the slaughterhouse.
This is a stark conflict of interest. The employee of the FBO will be under huge pressure to concur, to maximise production and not to make difficulties. With the current generation of vets having trouble holding their own against FBOs, it is obvious that a part-time employee/inspector will have no chance.
These are very worrying developments indeed.
I am advised that in Ireland, the authorities have taken a different route. They are seeking to enhance the rôle and competence of Meat Inspectors, while reducing the rôle of vets as far as possible within current EU law. This seems to me to be a much more sensible route.
The FSA has declared its intention of influencing the development of EU policy in this area. I believe it should be pressing for an independent, unified service in which one single operative — call him a Meat Inspector if you like — can do the whole job of ensuring that standards are maintained in abattoirs. We could save costs, and raise standards at the same time, by cutting out the absurd duplication of work and division of responsibility, while maintaining the independence and integrity of the Inspectorate.