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New Year begins with a lot of ‘unfinished business’

Scotland’s meat wholesalers are looking for 2011 to be the year when some major, long-running issues are finally resolved, hopefully placing the production, processing and marketing of Scottish meat on a consistently profitable footing.  
Industry leaders also say that the year ahead needs to include the development of a new meat inspection framework which is open and transparent and free from hidden agendas.  
“There were many good beginnings for our industry in 2010,” said Alan Craig, president of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW). “We were particularly encouraged by the depth of debate surrounding the Pack Inquiry. This showed the level of concern over future supplies which is being felt by almost everyone in the livestock and meat sector.  
“However, while accepting that progress was made in 2010, especially in identifying support options for the future, it’s clear we still have a lot of unfinished business on the table concerning this issue. In spite of everything that has been said and written about the Pack Inquiry, the bottom line is that real decisions have still to be taken. Until we reach that point, with everyone buying into a new support structure, there will be no lasting solution to the downward pressure on cattle and sheep numbers in Scotland. While we obviously have to find the most equitable way possible to apply all available support to the farming industry, halting the livestock sector’s slide in numbers remains the number one priority for us all.  
“Another piece of unfinished business involves the meat inspection system and the charges for inspection which the Food Standards Agency (FSA) appears determined to pass on to the industry. I wouldn’t want to suggest that we have even had a ‘good beginning’ in this context. Having been personally involved in the detail of this issue now for what feels like an eternity, but is probably near to four years, I can safely say we are no nearer now to a suitable negotiated outcome as we were when we began. The ‘dispute’ has also become personal, some may suggest even dirty! Played out regularly in the trade press and more recently; escalating to mainstream media. The irony is that there’s not a winner in sight, only losers!  
“The facts, that we can’t lose sight of, remain: Industry cannot ignore that unwinding a decade of ‘Carte Blanche’ budgeting and management in the Meat Hygiene Service, after the BSE disaster of 1996, does take time and is clearly yielding results, many of which were deemed as ‘impossible’ only two years ago. This effort has gathered a head of steam and will, I’ve no doubt, continue to make substantive savings.  
“FSA must accept the industry is not trying to ‘kill off’ or ‘dumb down’ the inspection service. We have always stated, and never altered our view, that we want a ‘consistently professional and practically efficient inspection service’ delivered at a competitive cost. The cost gap between the two ‘parties’ has narrowed, but belittling that difference to a farthing on a packet of mince or a shilling on a pig’s ear is most unhelpful, some would even suggest naive, bearing in mind, in many cases, that this is precisely what the industry survives on. In addition, to recover it, a Bill would have to pass through Parliament compelling consumers to pay those amounts in the form of a tax.  
“So what is the answer? Well, it is certainly not the preservation of the status quo. Attitudes, and possibly characters, would need to change. From an SAMW point of view, most of our members favour following a devolved Scottish solution, a view which is attracting empathy from politicians of all denominations and one which is most likely to deliver the negotiated outcome they want. Allowing our members to get back to managing their own businesses, without having to read or listen to this current soap opera, will be a priority for the Association in 2011.  
“An area where progress was definitely achieved in 2010 was in lobbying for the EU-based review of TSE controls. SAMW’s consistent position on this has always given top priority to the need for TSE regulations to be reviewed so that they are risk-based, proportionate and cost-effective, while assuring a high level of food safety. Although the latest indications from Brussels regarding possible changes are definitely encouraging on these points, we will be looking for some solid decisions to follow in 2011.  
“Another positive development was the appointment of Alan McNaughton and John Craig to the Board of Quality Meat Scotland (QMS). Both are deeply involved in the meat industry on a day-to-day basis in addition to being SAMW office bearers and will, I’m sure, have much to contribute to QMS over the next few years.  
“The shaping of a workable approach to sheep EID was another 2010 beginning which we applaud and are confident will produce real benefits for the whole industry in the year ahead. In this context, tribute is due to the willingness of SAMW members and Scotland’s auctioneers to adopt an off-farm EID recording system, a solution which will avoid placing unreasonable burdens on producers. This will, given time, benefit the whole industry practically. It also potentially provides the foundation of a movement management system, if prime lamb is to feature in a future subsidy payment structure.  
“A welcome and much-needed re-growth of meat exports by SAMW member companies in 2010 was also hugely encouraging. Many businesses made full use of currency exchange rate advantages to re-establish links with previous customers and explore new international sales opportunities. Such export success, of course, is a good reminder of the respect which Scottish meat commands in overseas markets. It’s also another reason why we must continue to work to save, or indeed boost, domestic livestock production. It’s an opportunity for the future which must not be eroded.  
“Finally, one area of unfinished business which no one is expecting to be resolved in 2011, concerns the financial challenge facing the whole economy. SAMW’s focus in this context will be on the need to remind political leaders and financial institutions that although food and farming isn’t entirely recession-proof, very few other industry sectors are capable of achieving the levels of sustainability, efficiency or longevity clearly demonstrated by our members for decades. Those leaders also need to review their latest fashionable practice of judging the development needs of businesses based on the size of their turnover. Nobody can argue that SMEs are deserving cases when issuing grant support but many larger companies also need similar opportunities. The message has to be clear; ‘size doesn’t matter’, treat each case on its own merit and allow the sector to compete; enabling Scotland’s many excellent, long-standing meat businesses to continue processing and marketing quality products on domestic, European and global markets. Our industry performed well in 2010 and will again in 2011, especially if we can clear some of the sector’s frustrating ‘unfinished business’.”