Concerns have been raised that farmers could lose out if graders were forced to turn a blind eye to practices devaluing carcases following the privatisation of Meat and Livestock Commercial Services (MLCS).
AHDB has announced it was in ‘exclusive talks’ with HallMark Veterinary Services over the sale of MLC, but sources inside the business have warned it threatens their independence and impartiality.
Food experts also slammed the move, claiming it was ‘typical’ of what was happening to many public sector agriculture and food regulatory bodies.
The levy board said the sale was in response to a ‘challenging business environment’.
It also pointed to the need to invest in new technology, including video image analysis (VIA), claiming it had been unable to ‘strategically invest in long-term projects’ without the commercial freedoms afforded to the private sector.
But sources rubbished this suggestion, explaining VIA had been available for about 20 years, and many larger abattoirs did not want it.
AHDB chief executive Jane King also claimed there would be ‘synergies and efficiencies’ under commercial ownership which would be impossible under public ownership and said the move was vital in securing the prospects of the business in the short-term and future investment.
But with HallMark able to use the MLC name, there were concerns farmers would be unaware of the sell-off, something AHDB said it was hoping to avoid by announcing the change now.
Graders also told Farmers Guardian the fact MLC was a publicly-owned body meant farmers were reassured they had someone completely independent checking they were being paid correctly.
They argued the move to become a private company concerned with profits could put pressure on employees to turn a blind eye to practices which devalued carcases.
AHDB disputed this, claiming independence had been one of its priorities in privatisation talks and HallMark had to ‘demonstrate its integrity and ability to provide independent services’.
HallMark chairman David Peace said the company ‘completely rested on its integrity’ and was well-known in the meat industry for having a strong reputation.
“We are used to working on behalf of Government departments and assessing practices in abattoirs”, he added.
“More recently, over the last couple of years, we have been inspecting farms for the Rural Payments Agency and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, and if our integrity was faintly impeachable, we would never get anywhere near doing that work and it would never be continued.
“When we are looking for an organisation which would fit with us and with whom we would like to expand, one which has the independence and integrity of MLCS is precisely the kind of organisation we are looking for.”
AHDB also told Farmers Guardian the RPA would continue to provide ‘robust oversight’ of classification services for the Beef Carcase Classification scheme and the Pig Carcase Grading scheme, with classifiers having to be licensed and checked by RPA inspectors.
“These regulatory oversight schemes should give farmers confidence the independence of the classification service should be maintained by the successful bidder in the future,” a spokesman said.
Hallmark Veterinary Services
Eville and Jones
News of the sell-off came as professors Erik Millstone and Tim Lang published the report ‘Weakening UK food law enforcement: A risky tactic in Brexit’, which warned privatisation put food safety standards at risk.
The academics criticised Food Standards Agency (FSA) proposals, made in its Regulating our Future report, to outsource food safety inspections and audits to the private sector.
The agency has already offered Eville and Jones a two-year contract to provide official meat control services in meat plants through England and Wales.
Prof Millstone said Government was privatising numerous functions, claiming they could be better served by the private sector, but he believed it could create ‘conflicts of interest’.
The professors’ report also suggested the sell-offs would undermine the 1999 Food Safety Act, which assumed safety and quality standards would be ‘enforced by adequately trained and resourced local authority Environmental Health Officers and Trading Standards Officers in collaboration with public analysts’.
An FSA spokesman said removing local authorities from the front line of food safety was not in its plans, but it wanted to bolster their role by providing them with ‘other sources of information’.
“Local authorities will continue to have ultimate responsibility for enforcement of food safety and food standards regulation and no business would be responsible for regulating itself,” the spokesman added.