Source: Alamy 

Hundreds of inspectors, vets and office-based staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are involved in a dispute with the FSA over pay

Staff at the Food Standards Agency are being balloted for strike action that could affect meat supplies during the festive season.

Hundreds of inspectors, vets and office-based staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are involved in the dispute, after they rejected a pay offer of between 2% and 5%.

Unison is calling for a “significantly higher offer”. It has put forward a 10% pay claim, amid a rapidly deteriorating industrial relations picture across the food sector.

“These employees protect consumers, ensure good animal welfare, and must be rewarded accordingly,” said Unison head of local government Mike Short.

FSA staff play “a vital role in keeping contaminated meat off people’s plates” but they have to work in “difficult and unpleasant conditions”, he added.

The strike action, should it go ahead, could cause a significant drop in the throughput of animals, said David Lindars, technical director of the British Meat Processors Association.

And he added the impact could be “catastrophic” and was “the next big issue” facing suppliers in a year of challenges, which have ranged from soaring production costs to the pig sector’s backlog woes – driven by a weak pork market and labour shortages.

It comes as bird flu is already threatening the supply of poultry – and Christmas turkey in particular – with The Grocer reporting last week that more than 300,000 turkeys had already died from, or been culled as a result of, the virus this autumn.

Without FSA workers, processors would be unable to process any livestock, which would “stop us in our tracks”, Lindars warned.

“If you think about the pig farmers and what they have been through in the last two years and then you can’t operate a huge pig processing factory which slaughters 15,000 or 20,000 – that will create a backlog instantly within a week,” Lindars added.

Another industry source told The Grocer the current situation was “potentially very serious”, for meat suppliers. However, until the vote was complete, strike action could take “many forms” with varying levels of disruption.

But while they wanted to avoid being “alarmist”, the extreme end of the possibilities would result in “the supply chain grinding to a halt”, they said.

The ballot closes on 31 October and Unison has said this could result in strikes in the run-up to and over Christmas – leading to less meat on supermarket shelves.

The industry source added that “clearly at a time when supply chains are under a range of pressures, anything which has the potential to disrupt supplies to consumers would be extremely unwelcome”.

In response to the ballot, Robert Locker, head of field operations at the FSA, said the regulator was aware of the balloting and was awaiting the result and notification from Unison of its next steps.

“Should Unison decide to take industrial action, our contingency plans will help minimise any disruption to meat supplies,” he added.