Our annual survey is the real picture and it shows that our members who serve the public and protect our meat supplies are being bullied out of the job
Food safety and animal welfare checks in abattoirs are being hampered because of bullying and harassment of inspection staff, The Ecologist can reveal.
Data obtained by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism highlights how meat hygiene inspectors and vets working for the Food Standards Agency (FSA) endure regular abuse and intimidation - and in some cases physical violence - in slaughterhouses across England and Wales, with 180 incidents recorded over a 36-month period.
On more than 20 occasions between January 2013 and July 2016, the data reveals, the FSA was forced to withdraw inspection staff from abattoirs completely because of concerns for their physical safety and welfare - a measure regarded as a last resort.
Unions say the problem is more widespread than the figures suggest, with incidents going unreported. A Unison survey of meat hygiene inspectors found that, last year, 51% of respondents had been the victim of bullying and harassment. One inspector said the situation was so bad he had considered suicide, according to the Union.
Although many of the abattoirs where incidents have taken place are smaller facilities supplying butchers shops or wholesale markets, plants operated by large meat processing companies also appear in the FSA data.
The FSA told the Bureau that the bullying and harassment "can seriously impact on or even prevent [inspectors] from carrying out our regulatory role". There are around 850 meat hygiene inspectors and official veterinarians working in abattoirs in England and Wales.
The situation was described as "wholly unacceptable" by one leading food industry expert: "The public buys food expecting it to be safe, yet here we see levels of inappropriate management and poor work culture which help explain why food poisoning statistics stubbornly fail to come down", said Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at City University. "The Food Standards Agency has been weakened by cuts but it must be held to account."
Henry Smith, Conservative MP for Crawley and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare, said: "There seems to be an endemic general abuse problem with some of the abattoir sector - [affecting] both food standards staff and livestock - and [this] highlights even more the case for compulsory independent CCTV monitoring of their activities. Such offensive behaviour is both a risk to public health and animal welfare standards."
And campaigners expressed concern over the potential impact on animal welfare and food hygiene standards.
"These incidents show just how bad tensions between the regulator and those being regulated have become. Many slaughterhouse operators and those that represent them resent all oversight," said Isobel Hutchinson of Animal Aid. "The FSA must stand up for its vets and should prosecute anyone who threatens, intimidates or physically attacks them as they try to do their job."
The official FSA records reveal that between January 2013 and July 2016 there were 180 incidents reported to the agency's Health, Safety and Wellbeing Team , including 106 instances of verbal abuse, 51 incidents involving aggressive behaviour, 7 physical assaults and 15 acts of intimidation, amongst others.
The regulator classifies aggressive behaviour as an incident "where the individual was subject to an episode of aggression, verbal or non-verbal." Intimidation is viewed as an incident "where behaviour or language resulted in an individual feeling threatened."
Physical assault involves "unwelcome physical contact, including an actual physical attack or where a person genuinely believed they were going to be attacked" and verbal abuse covers other incidents "including those that relate to the use of sexist or racist remarks."
In most instances, the data reveals, abuses were dealt with by a letter to the Food Business Operator (FBO), a mix of formal and informal meetings or other - unspecified or unrecorded - action. Mediation was used in 16 cases.
Formal investigations were launched on seven occasions, the records show, and six cases - including three involving aggressive behaviour, one incident of intimidation, one of verbal abuse and one assault - were referred to the police. On 21 occasions, the FSA was forced to take the most drastic action and withdraw inspection staff from the premises concerned.
The agency told The Bureau that due to the significant effect this can have on the commercial operation of an approved premises, the withdrawal of service "would be a measure of last resort and where other options would be insufficient to protect the health and safety of FSA staff."
"It will only be considered where a single incident is considered to be of a sufficiently serious nature, or where there is evidence of continued or persistent bullying and harassment have been established to an extent which may pose a risk to health and safety", it said.
Although the FSA said it was impossible to quantify the number of non-reported incidents, one industry source said the figures "were only the instances that get reported, there will be plenty of day to day abuse that is just accepted as part of the culture and environment."
A Unison survey of its meat hygiene inspector members found that 62% of respondents had witnessed bullying and harassment in the past year, and that 51% had themselves experienced it. Most - 68 % - said those responsible were either meat plant owners or workers. Intimidation was the most commonly cited form of bullying - 39% - according to the survey, followed by shouting - 36% - and abuse, at 24%.
"Our annual survey is the real picture and it shows that our members who serve the public and protect our meat supplies are being bullied out of the job", said Paul Bell of Unison. "Even administrators are being bullied. One respondent has said they feel like committing suicide because of the bullying they receive and the lack of action to tackle industry from their manager."
The FSA said: "We adopt a zero-tolerance approach towards workplace bullying and harassment. Individuals are encouraged to report incidents of harassment or bullying at work, whether they are the recipient or witness to an incident. All allegations of bullying and harassment will be investigated and, if appropriate, action will be taken.
"We have put in place a programme of training and support for our managers to ensure that in the first instance we can support our inspectors and work collaboratively with food businesses to uphold the standards of expected behaviour. We also continue to communicate to food businesses and their representative organisations the importance of upholding these standards."
Earlier this year serious hygiene failures in UK abattoirs were uncovered by a Bureau investigation which found 1 in 4 meat plants had failed a key food safety test during official audits.
Andrew Wasley is food and agriculture reporter at the Bureau of Investigative journalism An investigative journalist specialising in food issues, he's also co-founder of the award-winning investigative agency Ecostorm and a previous editor of the Ecologist magazine. His book, 'The Ecologist Guide to Food', was published in 2014.
Follow him on Twitter: @Andrew_Wasley