January 2015: It’s refreshing to see a pragmatic attitude to MRSA

All too often these days, livestock disease is being used as a political bargaining chip. Take Russia’s ban on pork from the entirety of the EU that began when African swine fever (ASF) started appearing in EU member states. Considering that ASF was present in Russia already, there was no logical reason for the ban, but as far as Moscow was concerned, the way the export licences were drawn up gave it the opportunity to stop all EU pork from crossing its borders.

I suppose, however, we can console ourselves that even if the ASF ban hadn’t been introduced, the pig sector would still have been caught up in the sanctions that followed Russia’s incursions into Crimea and Ukraine.

On an altogether smaller scale, there’s an ongoing battle in Scandinavia surrounding Meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Both Finland and Sweden are very protective of their home pig industries and they have taken to attacking Danish imports at every opportunity. Unfortunately, they have latched onto MRSA as a potential weak spot for Denmark’s pork sector and this has become a focus for attacks against their southerly neighbour.

The most recent salvo in this campaign came in mid-December when Finland’s state broadcaster, YLE, carried a report on two investigative TV programmes – one broadcast in Finnish and the other in Swedish – that the country’s Food Safety Authority (Evira) had tested samples from 25 pork products bought in the greater Helsinki area and evidence of MRSA had been found in two of them – a frozen Danish ham and a pack of Dutch bacon.

The supermarket where the products were bought is run by Finland’s Kesko Group. It reacted by immediately pulling the products from its shelves and has said it will conduct more MRSA tests before making any further decisions on what it will do.

However, Kesko’s main competitor, S-Group, which also sells Danish ham, has adopted a completely different approach and has refused to withdraw the product.

“As a matter of fact we won’t necessarily do anything about the matter,” the executive responsible for the company’s quality assurance and accountability department, Sari Ristaniemi, said, adding for good measure “We don’t see it as a food safety risk.”

It’s a remarkably refreshing approach from a retailer, and in fact one that’s backed by Evira too. It told YLE that it doesn’t currently advise retailers to recall products found to contain MRSA, and that it’s up to the companies themselves to decide how to react.

Instead, the food safety body said the onus should be on consumers to handle meat correctly during preparation and cooking.

And although no MRSA has been found in Finnish pork samples, Evira said it couldn’t rule out the virus being present, and estimated that it could already be on 15% of pig units.

> Graeme Kirk has been editor of Pig World since March 2013. Born into a farming family in South-west Scotland, he’s been an agricultural journalist for nearly 30 years

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