The axe is hanging over the Meat Hygiene Service as the FSA says it is time to free the system of red tape.

Deputy veterinary director Peter Hewson told the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers' conference he was prepared to hear suggestions for more efficient meat inspections.

One possible result of the FSA review could be a new, independent control body to oversee food hygiene, with more emphasis on self-regulation.

The agency is also considering tailor-made inspection reflecting the level of risk at individual plants.

The MHS costs the industry £27m every year and taxpayers even more through government subisdy.

Norman Bagley, policy director of AIMS, welcomed the news, the fruit of three years campaigning.

"We have long argued it is necessary to completely rationalise the bureaucratic monster that is the MHS."

He wants a much cheaper, more efficient system, and claims the industry can do some of the work itself.

Veterinary expert Jason Aldiss, MD of meat hygiene practice Eville & Jones, said tailored inspection packages could deliver big cost savings. Other risk management systems, like the ubiquitous HACCP, should not be duplicated by MHS inspectors.

"I'm not proposing that the industry self-regulates, but a halfway house to self-regulation whereby it controls itself and manages itself in such a way that the need for statutory inspection is much less. So long as there is sufficient independent audit and verification of what is being done, that provides assurances to consumers and government.

"The problem is that the MHS is not able to exploit those advantages made available in the legislation because it is a government agency and bound by civil service employment requirements."

Meat and Livestock Commission marketing director Richard Lowe welcomed the review.

"There is a clear agenda to ensure that meat hygiene inspection is proportionate to the risk. It won't require the same hours that MHS puts in."