Meat inspection service ‘creaking at the seams’

The country’s meat inspection service is “creaking at the seams”, Conor Geraghty food animal chairman at Veterinary Ireland has warned.

The Galway-based vet was speaking after the escalation of work-to-rule action by Temporary Veterinary Inspectors (TVIs) at meat factories nationwide in recent days following a breakdown in talks over TVI employment status between the representative body and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The situation is said to be undermining normal processing activity at a number of factories – particularly in the midlands and north east where plants are heavily dependent on TVIs working double shifts.

Meat Industry Ireland has stated that some plants are facing “significant disruption” to operations which is impacting on processing, animal intake and is risking supplies to customers at a critical time of year.

Veterinary Ireland contends that there is a “worrying shortage” of TVIs on meat factory panels at present, and the body is calling for new TVIs to be recruited on the same terms that current inspectors are on.

The hiring of new TVIs was suspended by the department in 2011 under a moratorium on meat factory panels. The system has not been reopened by the department since – despite a number of retirements in the intervening years.

There are approximately 650 TVIs active on meat factory panels, however, it is understood that an additional 150 inspectors are needed to ease the pressure being faced by current TVIs – who regularly work double and triple-hour shifts to keep kill lines running.

We’re certainly not on strike, there is no question of that, everyone is going to work; but the problem is that there has been a long-running dispute over our status.

“The department haven’t taken on a single TVI since 2011, so in specific plants around the country there is a shortage and they are depending on the goodwill of fellas to go in, do double shifts and in some cases triple shifts, to keep the plants going.

“Vets have been doing this for the last five or six years,” said Geraghty.

AgriLand understands that Irish Country Meats and Rosderra Meats have been significantly impacted by the action, with Rosderra – the largest pork processing company in the country – forced to reduce its daily intake from 6,000 head to 4,600 head.

The system is creaking at the seams for the last five years; and I’ve been telling them that they need to open the panel and let younger vets – which may attract more younger vets back into rural practices.

“But basically the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine backed out of the deal last Tuesday (December 11) that we had agreed on.

“The deal was a collective, mediated agreement between the Department of Agriculture and Veterinary Ireland and the deal was essentially to settle the employment situation, once and for all, and to have a pathway forward to open the panels,” he said.

The mediation process was managed by the former head of the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) Kieran Mulvey over recent months.

“The deal was to secure the future of the meat inspection service the way it is, but with additional people to be taken on to support it.

“There was no pension liabilities, no holiday pay, it was the same thing; it was an hourly rate of pay, you came in to do your work. We were happy enough with that,” said Geraghty.

However, Geraghty contends that the agreement fell through at the last minute due to an objection from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

Both departments were contacted for a statement, but neither replied before this article was published.

Christmas rosters

Geraghty stressed that vet action will continue.

“Basically what’s happened now is that the vets that were doing double shifts and triple shifts have decided ‘why am I killing myself going in at 1:00am in the morning to work in a poultry factory until 4:00am to keep the thing open when the department aren’t even standing over the deal that they agreed to?

“Why should we prop the whole system up and get no respect in return?” said Geraghty.

They have gone back to their original position and that is completely unacceptable, they are saying we’re not employees.

“The work-to-rule will continue until such a time that this is negotiated properly. The agreement is between the Department of Agriculture and Veterinary Ireland, not Veterinary Ireland and the Department of Public Expenditure, so I don’t see why they are getting involved at all.

“The question now is – will current TVIs make themselves available for unsociable Christmas rosters?

“There are a lot of rumours that vets are asking ‘why should we go in there and work during Christmas when the department are off and they after backing out of the deal? People are saying ‘they should go down and do it themselves’.

“We didn’t instruct anyone not to do a double shift, but people are getting very annoyed over what’s happened,” said Geraghty.