Fears more diseased meat could reach consumers

Hygiene inspectors have warned that more diseased meat could end up in sausages and pies because of changes to safety checks in slaughterhouses.

Ron Spellman, a British meat inspector with 30 years’ experience, said that new regulations which took effect from June 1 risk diseased parts of animals going undetected.

But the British Meat Processors Association accused interest groups, such as unions representing government meat inspectors, of using scare tactics to defend jobs.

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Mr Spellman, who is director-general of the European Working Community for Food Inspectors and Consumer Protection, which represents meat inspectors across the EU, told the BBC: “Last year we know that there were at least 37,000 pigs’ heads with abscesses or tuberculosis lesions in lymph nodes in the head. They won’t be cut now.

“There’s no way to see those little abscesses, little tuberculosis lesions without cutting those lymph nodes.”

Eight million pigs a year are slaughtered for meat in the UK. Meat from pigs’ heads is recovered by specialised parts of boning plants and goes into pies, sausages and other processed foods.

Inspectors used to cut open pig carcasses to check for signs of disease but under new European regulations, supported by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), they will rely on visual checks alone.

The FSA’s chief operating officer, Andrew Rhodes, told the BBC it was better to have a hands-off system to reduce cross-contamination.

“The risks to the consumers are increasingly from microbiological and pathogenic hazards and that’s what we must control,” he said. “We cannot simply ignore the risks that are brought by touching, cutting and handling products that are later going to go on to be cooked and eaten.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the changes will mean less cutting and handling of carcasses and offal, reducing the potential risk of harmful bacteria spreading onto meat.

A spokesman added: “Pigs will continue to be inspected for lesions by a vet and again after slaughter by a meat inspector. All pigs for export will be inspected using the methods agreed with the markets we export to.”

Shadow food and farming minister Huw Irranca-Davies has called for an urgent meeting with the FSA. “We want categorical assurances that this does not in any way jeopardise consumer safety or Britain’s reputation as a supplier that operates to the highest possible standards.”

The changes will not damage consumer safety, insisted Stephen Rossides, the director of the British Meat Processors Association. “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 unions’ resistance to change is largely motivated by their efforts to preserve their members’ jobs by using scare tactics.”

Unison’s Yorkshire and Humber secretary, John Cafferty, refuted the claims, saying: “Our main concern is that we have a safe system of inspection. People need to know that the food on their plate is safe and if you cut down the number of inspectors or inspections, these diseases will spread.”