Industrial action

Meat inspectors are in dispute with their employer over fair pay

Meat inspectors, official veterinarians and support staff employed by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in England, Wales and Scotland are in a dispute over pay.

Two four-hour walkouts took place on Tuesday 26 August and Wednesday 27 August 2014. UNISON is now in discussions with the employer and ACAS to find a resolution to the dispute.

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Food Standards Agency hold first four-hour strike

Today’s action was a shot across the bows that clearly shows the strength of feeling amongst our members in the FSA

Meat inspectors on strike

Our members working as meat inspectors and official vets for the Food Standards Agency have been on picket lines across the country since first light

The facts

Meat hygiene inspectors (MHIs), official government vets (OVs) working in abattoirs and the staff who support them are the defenders of our food safety.

They work on behalf of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in slaughterhouses, from home and in offices around the UK, making sure the meat on our plates is safe to eat and does not contain organic material that would repulse us.

Specialised professionals, MHIs and OVs inspect animals before and after they are killed, ensuring meat complies with hygiene standards.

They are in dispute with their employer over fair pay because the real value of their pay has been falling for years

In the ballot over fair pay, 63% of members voted for strike action in a 47% turn-out. On the basis of that vote, UNISON’s industrial action committee authorised industrial action.

The latest pay offer is an increase of 0.75%. As inflation (RPI) is running at 2.4%, this is a reduction in the value of pay of 1.65% and it means loss to their pensions.

This is the second year the FSA has imposed a 0.75% pay rise across the board and they refuse to negotiate. If they offered just 0.25% more across the board to make 1% it would equate to only £62 on average, per person, per year.

Members are asking for a pay rise that recognises their vital role in consumer safety

FSA staff have a difficult job. They deserve to be paid fairly, and have asked for:

  • An above inflation consolidated pay rise for staff on all pay levels, with an equitable distribution across all grades. This was rejected by the FSA. 
  • For low earners a minimum of £350 a year pay rise. This was rejected by the FSA.
  • Performance related pay for all satisfactory performers. This was rejected by the FSA.

Essentially, what members are asking for is the cost of living rise to implemented across the board.

The Food Standards Agency can afford to pay more

The FSA is subject to a pay policy set by government that says they have a 1% pot to distribute in negotiation with the recognised trade unions. Instead they have chosen to give workers a cost of living rise of 0.75%.

UNISON has tried to negotiate

UNISON has been trying to talk to the FSA since 2012 and up until now has tried to avoid any form of industrial action.

Our members are in strong support of the meat industry. However, we have reached a point where the FSA will not negotiate via the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), nor will they listen.

Meat inspectors and vets working in abattoirs keep us healthy every day

In the last two years, our members stopped the following from entering the human food chain:

  • 560,000 cases of milk spot caused by parasitic roundworm larvae in pigs;
  • 3 million chickens contaminated with faeces;
  • 2 million instances of tapeworm in red meat;
  • 3 million animals with pneumonia;
  • 450,000 animals with abscesses;
  • 28,000 animals with tuberculosis ;
  • 5.5 million chickens with ascites – a build-up of fluid caused by heart or liver diseases;
  • 1.8 million cases of peritonitis;
  • 4 million cases of septicaemia.

Privatisation

Privatised and deregulated meat inspection would not be safe.

UNISON is campaigning against the potential privatisation of meat inspection, and domestic and international pressure to deregulate the industry.

Meat inspectors and vets working in abattoirs are the defenders of our food safety. We want the government to continue being responsible for inspecting our meat to make sure it is protected from contaminants and is safe for us to eat.

State-employed meat inspection safeguards animal welfare and is vital for public safety and consumer confidence.

Meat inspectors play a vital role in public health

UNISON has members working as meat hygiene inspectors, lead veterinarians and official veterinarians. They work in abattoirs inspecting meat and ensuring animal welfare.

Inspectors check the hygiene in abattoirs, cutting plants, factories and cold stores. They:

  • check animal welfare conditions and inspect live animals, game or poultry for any signs of disease;
  • carry out post mortems on diseased animals;
  • check meat transportation conditions;
  • make sure unfit meat is destroyed properly;
  • recommend improvements and make sure they are carried out.

Meat inspectors work with lead veterinarians and official veterinarians to make sure meat hygiene meets industry standards.

They are authorised to take immediate action when they find an abattoir or farm is breaking the rules, including issuing verbal and/or written advice, warnings or recommending prosecution; reporting animal welfare issues to an appropriate enforcement body.

Regulation ensures safety

Before any meat can leave an abattoir it must be inspected. European regulations provide the legislative requirement for this.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is responsible for implementing those regulations and is a non-ministerial government department. This means it is run by a chief executive, not a government minister.

The FSA is also the voice of the UK in the European Union as the central competent authority.

If abattoirs did their own inspection, the incentive would be profit not safety

Meat inspectors must not be employed by the abattoirs. What would happen if an abattoir worker or a staff member employed by an abattoir were responsible for telling their boss that a carcass can’t be used? In an industry known for bullying, it is likely they would risk being sacked, and the incentive would be to not condemn the carcass.

Privatising meat inspection could lead to corners being cut, hygiene standards being lowered and animal welfare being disregarded. Cost factors could quickly become a consideration above and beyond enforcing regulations.

Our 2013 staff survey of members working in the FSA showed the dangers of not having state inspectors and vets.

We asked:

  • Could the meat industry be trusted to carry out meat inspection itself on behalf of the consumer?
    99% of those responding said no.
  • Could meat industry staff be responsible for recognising and removing (for example) conditions such as abscesses, parasitic cysts, pneumonia, pleurisy or septicaemia?
    98.4% of those responding said no.
  • Have you ever seen animals being mistreated where you work?
    38.3% of those responding said yes.

Have you witnessed bullying or harassment at work in the last two years?’
74.7% of those responding said yes. A further 55.8% admitted that they had been bullied with 67.6% saying that bullying came from abattoir plant owners or plant workers.

The public cares about farming

Independent research conducted for Labelling Matters shows that 83% of consumers in the UK want to know which farm system has been used to produce their meat and dairy products and 79% said farm animal welfare was important when deciding which food products to buy.

Regulation of the meat industry saves lives

After the BSE crisis in 1996 and e.coli in 1996-7 the government introduced much stricter regulation enforcement.

As a result, between 1997 and 2001 we produced the cleanest meat in the history of the British meat industry. We want to see return to those high standards.

It only costs 50p

The price for independent meat inspectors and vets who ensure public safety is just 50p a year per person in the UK. The FSA surveys show that people think this is money well spent.

When services are privatised everyone suffers, service quality declines, workforce conditions are eroded and equality considerations take a back seat.

Christina McAnea, UNISON head of health care