Industrial action with the potential to wreak havoc on the UK meat industry has been deferred while bosses at the Unison trade union attempt to resolve a dispute with the government over pension rights for local government employees.
The eleventh hour reprieve came as industry bosses warned that meat and poultry supplies to major food processors and retailers could dry up if a five-day strike by Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) inspectors went ahead as planned.
Unison general secretary, Dave Prentis, said: “We have deferred the strike by our meat inspectors to allow exploratory talks to take place in a positive climate. The regional programme of all out action planned for later this month and national action in May remains in place.”
Speaking after a one-day strike by MHS staff last Tuesday, meat processors said a resolution was needed fast to prevent “a small group of people effectively bringing a large part of the food industry to a halt”
If further strikes were called, buyers could lose patience and source product from overseas, which could ultimately lead to job losses in the UK, warned Grampian Country Foods.
While MHS inspectors were not the only people capable of monitoring hygiene, meat and poultry could not legally be released on to the market without being officially stamped by registered MHS staff, said a company spokesman.
He added: “You can't just bring in someone else to do the job. This is a legal requirement we're talking about. We're all lobbying the government to sort this out, but it's between the unions and the government.”
Peter Scott of the British Meat Processors Association added: “Cold stores and chillers typically hold around two-weeks' worth of stock, so in the event of a strike, we'd stagger on in the short term, provided that there isn't panic buying and a run on meat.
“But if a strike continued for any length of time, we would have a real problem. This is deeply annoying and worrying for the industry, which is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Under employment law, you can't simply use plant staff with meat hygiene qualifications to approve and stamp products instead.”
The trade had coped with the one-day strike last Tuesday by staggering production around the problem day, he said. “But you can't do that for five days.”
Meat Hygiene Service communications manager Richard Billinge said: “We're hoping that we will be able to provide a service to the majority of plants in the event of a strike, but they will have to slow down production lines and that kind of thing.”
He added: “About half of the [2,000] MHS inspectors are members of Unison, but we don't know how many would come out. Last Tuesday, just under 600 of them went on strike, but if they strike this week they will get strike pay from Unison.”
A spokeswoman from Unison claimed that attempts by the meat trade to process meat without properly qualified staff were endangering public health.
She added: “We've had reports from vets in meat plants in England claiming that they have been put under great pressure to inspect and approve meat, assisted by trainees who are not qualified and not comfortable doing the work. It amounts to intimidation and public health is being jeopardised.”
Claims by Grampian that further strike action would put jobs at its Hall's meat plant in Broxburn under threat amounted to “scare stories”, added the union's Scottish organiser, bargaining, Joe Di Paola.
He said: “Grampian is already rationalising its operations, so any closures are already in the pipeline. Private companies complaining about hardship really need to direct their ire at the UK government.”
The Meat Hygiene Service is a government agency, which employs just under 2,000 staff, with inspection teams typically including official veterinary surgeons, senior meat hygiene inspectors or senior poultry meat inspectors, meat hygiene inspectors or poultry meat inspectors, and, at beef and/or sheep plants, meat technicians.