The Food Standards Agency and Food Standards Scotland have backed recommendations put forward in their combined draft review into meat processing practice and standards, published earlier this month.

The review contains a number of key recommendations to improve compliance and assurance across the cutting plant and cold storage parts of the meat industry supply chain. Conceived in response to a string of recent high-profile incidents in those same areas, many in the industry will view the proposals as a timely intervention after a turbulent period for the sector.

Conscience and complacency

The combined Guardian newspaper and ITV investigation into practices at 2 Sisters Food Group’s West Bromwich processing plant last year, and the Russell Hume mis-labelling scandal earlier this year, had left a perceptible mark on the meat processing sector’s reputation, consumer confidence and on its conscience. A lingering sense that sector standards and regulation were suffering from complacency, and a lack of clarity, comes at an already testing time for the wider industry. With the conversation on meat production and consumption an increasingly contentious one, the pictures and reports which emerged from the aforementioned investigations has done little to bolster the industry image.

Data sharing and skill development

Amongst the draft recommendations, a more concerted focus on data sharing and transparency across the sector, a push to develop skills and capabilities, and the production of clearer guidance are to form the pillars of a more robust compliance framework. Those behind the review have acknowledged the damage done by recent events and the need for clarity and cohesion in response on both sides – industry and regulatory. To that end, the recommendations are also suggesting a single organisation to centrally manage regulatory controls across the sector.

Public trust and confidence

Minds certainly seem focused. No public health issues have been reported, or animal culling necessary as a result of either recent scandal, unlike the BSE (of which there has been the unsettling news of a separate new confirmed case of the disease in Scotland last week) or Foot and Mouth crises. But the types of issues uncovered touch upon a wider social consciousness nerve that has been repeatedly jarred by so many issues of fairness, transparency and equality lately. At a time where meat consumption faces unprecedented competition from elsewhere, be it vegetarian, vegan or ‘flexitarian’ alternatives, the majority of producers recognise that public trust and confidence simply can’t be taken for granted.

Plenty at stake

The boards of both Food Standards agencies discussed the draft recommendations last week, and have now agreed on the path to a clearer, more robust compliance framework. Although the 2 Sisters and Russell Hume affairs have raised important matters within the cutting plant and cold storage spheres, there is no sense of self-congratulation by the regulators after the latter. They have been keen to acknowledge that the vast majority of processors are acting responsibly, with many going above and beyond the current regulatory requirements.

The intention, then, of all sides will be to shape a regime that avoids a repeat of either incident, and further front page headlines. After claims of heavy handedness by the FSA in the Russell Hume investigation and subsequent parliamentary criticism of the regulator for its sluggish response to the 2 Sisters revelations, there is as much at stake for the regulators as the producers, as we wait to see what shape the recommendations take in practice going forward.

MacRoberts’ Food & Drink team has a comprehensive grasp of the ever-changing food and drink environment and provides specialist legal support at every stage of the supply chain.