Bullying and intimidation in abattoirs threatens food safety checks

Food safety and animal welfare checks in abattoirs are being hampered 
because of bullying and harassment of inspection staff. Food Investigator Andrew Wasley reports..

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 twenty 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.”

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 

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 work place 
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

“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.