Industry reacts to BBC diseased pigmeat claims

The British Meat Processors’ Association (BMPA) has reacted strongly to claims in a BBC documentary that the recent change to pig carcase inspections at abattoirs will lead to more diseased meat finding its way into the food chain.

BBC Radio 4’s File on 4, which was broadcast on Tuesday night, said while meat inspectors in abattoirs used to be able to cut open pig carcases to check for signs of disease, new European regulations introduced from June 1 this year meant they now had to rely on visual checks alone.

The BMPA’s director, Stephen Rossides, backed the new inspection process.

“There was a strong consensus among policy makers and veterinarians that the traditional system of official meat controls in the EU was out-dated and did not adequately address today’s microbiological food hazards,” he said. “In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) delivered a scientific opinion in relation to pigs (and, later, separate ones in relation to poultry, cattle and sheep) identifying the main hazards, assessing the strengths and weakness of the current inspection system and recommending appropriate changes.

“Among these recommendations was one that advocated greater use of visual inspection by ending routine incision and palpation on the grounds that this invasive procedure could spread contamination. On the basis of the EFSA opinion, EU member states agreed a package of measures to modernise meat inspections, starting with pigs, in order to enhance public health protection across the EU. These changes have been approved by the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), and came into force on June 1.”

Mr Rossides added that all pig carcases would continue to be examined individually, and incision and palpation could still be carried out if the official vet considered this to be necessary. Only carcases considered fit for human consumption would receive the health mark that allows the meat to enter the food chain.

“The scientific assessment is that preventing the spread of contamination by avoiding routine invasive inspection procedures and handling of the carcase brings public health benefits,” he said.

A news story based on the documentary featured on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and on the BBC News website. It quoted the director general of the European Working community for Food inspectors and Consumer protection (EWFC), Ron Spellman, who claimed that last year there were at least 37,000 pigs’ heads found with abscesses or tuberculosis lesions in lymph nodes through checks using incisions.

“They won’t be cut now,” he added. “There’s no way to see those little abscesses, little tuberculosis lesions without cutting those lymph nodes.”

The report went on to suggest that meat recovered from these unchecked pig heads would find its way into pies, sausages and other processed foods.

The BMPA said that while some interest groups, notably unions representing meat inspectors, alleged the new EU rules would result in unfit meat entering the food chain, this was unlikely in practice.

“The unions’ resistance to change is largely motivated by their efforts to preserve their members’ jobs by using scare tactics,” Mr Rossides said. “Food business operators remove any abscesses and tumours as a matter of course on quality grounds (though such abnormalities pose no food safety risk.”

The story has revealed, however, that while the new inspection standards are now a legal requirement throughout Europe, they don’t meet the standard required for many export markets.

Suffolk abattoir owner Kevin Burrows, of C&K Meats, told the BBC that the FSA had agreed to him continuing with the former inspection method so that all the pork he processed was eligible for export.

“Why should an exported product be under higher scrutiny than a British product?” he said. “We’ll end up with a two-tier system.”

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