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Stackyard News Aug 06

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    Farmers looking for reassurance from beef labelling inspections

A European Commission inspection of beef labelling which is expected in the UK in less than a month's time will need to reassure farmers that all systems are accurate and that persistent rumours that more beef is sold as British, than is handled by packing plants, are false.
NBA chief executive, Robert Forster
NBA chief executive, Robert Forster

So says the National Beef Association which is aware that the last inspection by the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) in September 2002 identified an alarming number of occasions when compliance with beef labelling rules fell well short of what was required.

Also that recent examination by the RPA's abattoir inspectorate in England and Wales revealed that over the 14 months to the end of April some 70 centres out of 528 inspected had no traceability system in place, there were 39 instances in which there were no labels on incoming beef and 48 incidents when there were no labels on outgoing product.

"None of this is encouraging to beef farmers who know their futures depend on high provenance, high integrity, UK product being carefully differentiated from imports, and distributed through the retail and catering sectors at a premium, so producers can earn more from their cattle and have more chance of being able to survive," explained NBA chief executive, Robert Forster.

The Association wants to see fundamental improvements in the domestic system which it says is flawed because government inspectors, dubbed "The Farmers Police Force", are hampered by the low frequency of packing plant visits.

"While we acknowledge that integrity levels at many packing plants are high we nevertheless believe there are sections that are entirely unsatisfactory and would like to see inspections conducted on a risk basis so plants with the greatest opportunity to mix and match are targeted and the industry can be more certain that imported beef is not being passed off as home produced," said Mr Forster.

"It is equally important that next month's FVO inspection does not, as happened four years ago, leave the industry wincing at the indifference displayed at some levels over the integrity of the UK's beef labelling system and organisations like our own worried that farmers and consumers are not getting the protection they deserve because identifying non-British beef is not as easy as it should be."

During the September 2002 inspection the FVO revealed that the size of a batch of labelled beef frequently exceeded one day's production, that carcases and carcase parts in abattoirs and cutting plants were not individually identified by the kill number, and traceability systems in some premises were ineffective because there was no clear documentary trail.

"In addition to this separation between batches of incoming beef was judged to be insufficient in some cases, packers safeguards were mostly insufficient with incorrect labelling often not detected, compulsory information was not always on the labels and in some cases there was no clear link between incoming beef and outgoing product," said Mr Forster.

"If the same level of poor practice is exposed during the forthcoming inspection serious questions will have to be asked by government, as well as industry, about whether the market led development of the beef industry following subsidy decoupling is being seriously hampered because vital product differentiation is compromised by defective beef labelling and both the retail and catering premiums sought by UK farmers are constantly undermined."

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National Beef Association