£25m problem as watchdog passes on bill

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Farmers are set to face an estimated bill of £25m after the Government’s food watchdog announced plans to pass on the cost of meat hygiene inspections to the industry.

The change, proposed this week by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), will now go before Ministers for their approval and would see costs being passed on to farmers from as early as April next year.

Farming leaders have reacted furiously to the plan, with the National Farmers’ Union livestock chairman Alistair Mackintosh calling on MPs to block the plans to save already-pressed beef farmers from yet more overheads.

The FSA wants to see all abattoirs processing less than 5,000 livestock units a year to be brought into the low throughput category, making them eligible for a reduction in charges.

Under the proposals abattoirs will receive a 70 per cent reduction for their first 1,000 units, a further 50 per cent reduction for the next 1,000 units and a further 25 per cent reduction for between 2,000 and 5,000 units.

Bosses at the FSA claim the move will save around 570 establishments brought into the low throughput category around £2.6m a year and reaffirmed their commitment to reducing the cost of delivering meat controls to £50m by the end of 2015.

FSA chairman Jeff Rooker said: “The Board has confirmed that it is not the role of the FSA, as the food safety regulator, to subsidise the meat industry for the cost of delivering official controls.

“However, we have listened to concerns expressed about the impact on smaller plants of transferring this cost to the industry. That is why we have agreed to continue to provide support of £3.2m in an extended low throughput category, to reduce the financial impact on those plants that would be most affected. The board decision is only the start of a process which will begin now with referral to the Regulatory Policy Committee and discussions with Ministers.”

However the NFU said that move will “impact heavily on the competitiveness and sustainability of the red and white meat sectors” and called for an urgent and comprehensive review of existing controls to be carried out. Mr Mackintosh said: “We find it outrageous that we are being asked to pick up the costs of an out-dated, disproportionate inspection regime carried out by a high-cost, monopoly public service provider in the FSA.

“Since the FSA board is unwilling to see sense on this issue we are calling on the Government to intervene and stop the current proposals. A comprehensive review of current meat hygiene controls, and the implementation of the Macdonald recommendations, must take place before we can even consider full cost recovery.”

William Worsley, president of the Country Land and Business Association, said the move would have “significantly adverse consequences for the abattoir sector, both large and small scale operators, as well as imposing further cost on an industry that is already struggling.”

Industry unites in opposition

The shake-up of meat inspection charges has drawn the scorn of much of the meat and farming industry.

Earlier this week a letter to The Times laid out the industry’s case for opposing the changes and was signed by numerous industry leaders, including William Worsley of the CLA, Meurig Raymond of the NFU, Shaun Spiers of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Richard Stevenson of the National Federation of Meat and Food Traders) and Peter Nixon of the National Trust.