What a difference a day makes. Or maybe ten. Food Standards Agency (FSA) guidance on the storage and use-by dates of meat is causing no end of headaches for producers who are confused about the ten-day rule and may even be breaking the law unknowingly.
The incident that started it all, an unannounced inspection at Russell Hume, has been the subject of countless theories, many of them date-related. The FSA has refused to entertain or comment on these theories, but did say it led to a raft of information, which in turn led to enforcement action at DB Foods and Fairfax Meadow.
Put simply, the FSA guidance states that all vacuum-packed or modified atmosphere-packed food must be limited to a ten-day shelf-life, unless other controlling factors, such as keeping the product below 3°C, are in place.
Inspector confusion (back to top)
Richard Stevenson, technical director for the National Federation of Meat Food Traders (NFMFT), says inspectors themselves may not be 100% clear on the legislation.
“I’ve had many calls from people saying their Environmental Health Officer (EHO) was trying to impose a blanket ban of ten days on vac-packed food, regardless of other control measures. Or, the EHOs hadn’t noticed the 3°C limit, or that cured products had other controls of salt and preservatives.”
To compound the issue, certain sectors of the industry became aware last summer that fresh raw meat was on the list of products that fell under the ten-day rule. According to the NFMFT, this has caused as much confusion, especially as it hasn’t been enforced equally across the board.
“The inclusion of fresh raw meat was communicated, but probably not fully appreciated by everyone,” says Stevenson. “Certainly, the firms forced to recall were not fully aware. Also, those companies would have had hundreds of third-party BRC-type audits since last June and none of them seemed to have spotted the issue.”
Nervous traders (back to top)
One trader, who wished to remain anonymous, believes this change has got others very nervous about date labelling – not because they’re doing anything wrong, but because a day’s difference could mean they’re on the business end of enforcement action.
The guidance is causing tremendous confusion for members, says Craig Kirby, veterinary advisor to the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS). “The ten-day labelling regulations are for all foods, not just meat, but the sector needs information tailored to them. Everybody wants to do things right, but there is so much confusion about how to get it right.”
Growing relationships (back to top)
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. For one, AIMS and the FSA have put aside previous differences to help the industry. “We had a specific teleconference with the FSA, listing a series of questions that we needed answers for,” says Kirby. “Due to our varied membership, we decided to start with the whole carcase and then work through all the things that can be done to the product before it ends up at the consumer or caterer.
“When we started, there were 14 use-by questions. By the time we finished, there were 61 questions and the FSA gave us a comprehensive response on this issue.
“There’s an awful lot of Chinese whispers in the meat industry,” adds Kirby. “When I speak to caterers, they get all sorts of questions and everyone’s running scared.
“Bear in mind, there are 300 enforcement agencies in the UK, so there’s no way to get everyone saying the same thing. But since we distributed the responses received to members, the enquiries just dropped. We were getting seven to eight calls a day and that has significantly reduced. Industry’s own confusion caused as much hassle.”
Food Safety Conference: book now
Changes in regulation and future threats are the focus of Food Manufacture’s Food Safety Conference, which takes place in Birmingham this June.
Leading the line-up is Nina Purcell, director of Wales and local delivery at the Food Standards Agency, who will offer an update on the move to a new risk-based approach to inspecting food and drink businesses.
Other speakers include: Andy Morling, head of food crime at the National Food Crime Unit; Dawn Welham, president of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health; and Sue Davies, strategic policy adviser at Which?
Chaired by Campden BRI director general Professor Steven Walker, the conference will be held at etc.venues Maple House, Birmingham, on Thursday 21 June.