A long-running legal case involving the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and a meat business has been settled by the Supreme Court.

Cleveland Meat Company (CMC), which stopped trading in 2017, and the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS) brought the case against the FSA.

It concerned the European Union system for meat product inspection used to ensure that health and safety standards are maintained and whether there is a right of appeal against an Official Veterinarian’s assessment of the fitness of meat for human consumption when there is a dispute.

The row started in September 2014 when a bull was slaughtered at CMC’s abattoir. The animal passed initial ante-mortem checks by an FSA Official Veterinarian (OV), however, at post-mortem, a meat hygiene inspector identified three abscesses in the carcass indicating a form of blood poisoning, so it was declared unfit for human consumption by the OV.

No health mark was given so the company could not sell the carcass. CMC disputed the decision and appointed their own vet, who came to a different conclusion.

Appealing a decision
CMC and AIMS brought a judicial review to challenge FSA’s position that it was not required to use a section of the Food Safety Act and to claim the UK had to provide a method of challenging the OV’s decisions. The claim failed at the High Court and Court of Appeal before it was appealed to the Supreme Court.

This court referred two questions related to the case to the Court of Justice of the European Union in 2019 which delivered its judgment in September 2021.

Supreme Court Judges Brenda Hale and Philip Sales said: “There is no legal foundation for Cleveland Meat Company’s claim that the FSA acted unlawfully in declining to proceed under the section 9 procedure in relation to [this carcass]; nor is there any basis for the alternative complaint that the United Kingdom has failed to provide an appropriate means to challenge decisions taken by an Official Veterinarian.”

The European Court of Justice found there must be a right of appeal against an OV’s decision but Section 9 of the Food Safety Act did not allow for an operator to bring an action on its own initiative. The Supreme Court’s position was that judicial review provides a right of appeal.

“In the case of the Cleveland bull, the FSA failed in its legal obligation to inform the operator that he had a right of appeal, and even refused to allow for a second opinion. The law has now been clarified that there must be a right of appeal against decisions taken by OVs and it has been amended to require the OV to facilitate a second opinion,” said AIMS.

Although there is the option for businesses to challenge a decision of the FSA via judicial review, in practice the tests applied to set a high bar; meaning it will be very difficult for a party to overturn an FSA decision once it has been made, according to law firm Burges Salmon.

Simon Tunnicliffe, acting director of operations at the FSA, welcomed the decision.

“Our frontline OVs play a vital role in making important decisions every day which help protect consumers and ensure food is safe and what it says it is. We have support in place for our OVs to discuss complex cases before they make their final decision if needed.”

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