Negative terms most commonly used to describe the Food Standards Agency (FSA) were “frustrating, challenging and inconsistent”, according to a survey.

The research was done because the FSA wanted to know how businesses in the meat, wine and dairy sectors in England and Wales viewed the agency and its official controls.

In February and March 2020, 54 qualitative interviews were conducted with meat and wine firms and 327 quantitative interviews with meat, wine and dairy businesses. A financial incentive was given to all companies who took part.

Sector differences
No wine operators said they were dissatisfied with their experiences of the FSA’s processes, but some meat firms had criticisms about enforcement.

Most rated their experience of working with the FSA as very good (29 percent) or good (44 percent), with a quarter saying it was average. Only 2 percent said it was poor and 1 percent very poor.

Almost half of wine business operators said their experience of working with the FSA was very good compared with 23 percent of meat and 24 percent of dairy operators.

Overall, three quarters said their views had stayed the same over time. However this dropped to 58 percent amongst meat operators, 25 percent of whom said it had gotten better and 16 percent said their views had gotten worse.

Both meat and wine operators said they felt the FSA stopped bad companies from getting away with poor practice and helped to maintain consumer confidence.

Interpretation of guidelines
More than half of respondents said they found it easy or very easy to comply with FSA guidelines and requirements but one in 10 found it difficult, rising to a quarter of meat firms.

The main reasons for difficultly were that rules were too stringent or impractical, that it was becoming more complicated to comply, and the rules were constantly changing. Specific instances where some meat companies found it harder to comply included installing cameras or air conditioning in slaughterhouses, which could be expensive.

Many found the FSA to be helpful, professional, efficient and knowledgeable but it was also seen as frustrating, challenging and inconsistent. Some firms felt there was a lack of consistency on interpretation of FSA guidelines, and advice and instructions were not always clearly communicated.

A company might receive different audit feedback from one year to the next, even if it had not made any changes. There were instances where the same person gave different advice on different occasions. Some operators had made investments on meat mincing equipment or knife sterilizers based on advice, which turned out to be unnecessary.

Another criticism amongst meat firms was a perception that FSA and its staff lacked pragmatism and flexibility when it came to the standards it imposed on businesses. Smaller operators felt it was unfair to expect them to adhere to the same rules as larger ones as this could be costly and use up staff resources.

Communication was an issue for many. For some this was due to language barriers – meat operators reported many official veterinarians did not have English as a first language, and this resulted in a lack of clarity as to what they were being asked to do.

Unannounced visits and enforcement
A small minority of meat sites felt that FSA inspectors were actively looking to find fault and questioned whether some might have an agenda. These sites have a more “them vs us” mentality, and can feel they are working against the FSA.

Nearly all meat companies had experienced unannounced visits. The majority were satisfied, and some actively welcomed them. For some, the main criticism was that visits were not long enough.

About two thirds of meat operators had experienced enforcement. Some felt the timescales for compliance were unrealistic or unfair. Other concerns were the process being time-consuming and costly and the fact that the approach was formal as opposed to collaborative.

The majority of meat firms had experienced an audit and most were positive about it but some said there was sometimes a lack of consistency depending on who conducted the visit.

Dairy operators were most likely to have experienced unannounced visits, the FSA team and inspections for welfare, with more than half having been through these processes. The vast majority of dairies were satisfied with their experiences.

Wine firms felt that the FSA wine inspection teams were knowledgeable and helpful, and most had built up a strong relationship. Only a third had experienced enforcement, and most were satisfied. Nearly all wine operators had been through inspections and none said they were dissatisfied.

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