Feature: Changes to EU meat inspection

While proposed changes to inspection are throwing up concerns in the pig industry, the poultry sector is looking forward to a much-needed improvement, as Nicholas Robinson reports

Changes to meat inspection in the UK are snaking their way through the labyrinthine European legislation system, with a change to pig inspection due to be implemented in June next year.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was mandated to give scientific opinion on meat inspection for all species in the European Commission. Adopting a species-by-species approach, EFSA published its opinion on pig inspection back in 2011, poultry the following year and red meat this year. Member states then agreed on pig inspection proposals earlier this year and these are now being scrutinised by the European Parliament, but will come into force next year.

The 100-year-old meat inspection system for pigs will see major changes and testing will focus more on microbiological hazards and less on visual hazards. “The main public health risks from meat today are microbiological and cannot be detected by the naked eye,” says head of EU regulatory reform at the Food Standards Agency (FSA) Phil Flaherty. “The aim of modernising meat inspection is to make it more proportionate and risk-based, which will bring a greater flexibility of approach to industry and improve public health protection by a better targeting of microbiological hazards,” he adds.

Cut the cost

Modernisation can bring cost savings and Flaherty says there are opportunities to save money in this instance. He explains that costs would be saved by reducing testing requirements for diseases such as trichinella and adds that testing will be brought down from 100% to “a more targeted post-mortem inspection, where palpation and incision are not carried out as routine, but only where necessary”.

The industry has welcomed the pending changes, and director of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) Stephen Rossides says they changes are a “welcome step in the direction of a more appropriate and risk-based approach to meat inspection that addresses today’s food hazards, and so improves consumer protection”.

However, respondents to a recent MeatInfo.co.uk survey disagree that a change to pig inspection is positive, with 50% claiming a change in rules would “dirty pork products”, while 30% are unsure, leaving only 20% to agree it is good for the industry.

Change for the better?

There is some genuine industry concern and doubt about changes to pig inspection, which has been magnified by the UK’s biggest public sector union Unison.

According to Unison, a “relaxation” on pig carcase inspection would mean checks were not as detailed and could allow abscesses and tumours from sick animals to enter the food chain. Unison says: “Proper meat inspection is the only way to make sure the food on our plates is wholesome. People do not want to risk having sausages contaminated with abscesses and tumours and – without independent inspection – do not trust meat producers and supermarkets to prevent that happening.”

Unison national officer for meat hygiene inspectors Paul Bell is adamant there is a question somebody needs to ask those who are in favour of changes to pig inspection and meat inspection in general. “When we have got between 300 and 400 carcases running along a conveyor belt every hour, profit will increase,” he claims, saying this is because there will be fewer people inspecting on the lines.

“I can’t understand why they [the government] would want infected pigs with abscesses going into pork pies and sausages, because clearly they [sic] want people to have confidence in the industry.”

He says meat inspectors “on the ground” have told him they are worried that contaminants will get into the food system if visual inspection is reduced. “Fundamentally,” he says, “if you stop looking for something, it will go into the food system and I don’t understand why they [the government] want people to eat contaminated meat.”

Bell adds that people want to know what is going into their food and meat inspectors are “like defenders of meat safety”. He claims that, although they are unhappy because some may lose their jobs when the changes come, “it is not the [main] issue in this case”, and adds, “Everybody is a consumer and they eat what goes into pork pies, sausages and burgers, etc... They are concerned about what they and other people are eating.”

Spreading bacteria

Although Bell and those who took part in the MeatInfo.co.uk poll have their reasons to be uneasy about changes to a 100-year-old system, there are others who say current meat inspection practices may contribute to the spread of disease, rather than stopping it.

Ken Elliot, head of Unit Two, Food and Allergens, at the Food and Veterinary Office (FVO), says the technique of cutting open a carcase to check for disease is more likely to spread microbial contaminants. He also explains that many inspectors on the line are experienced enough to “spot something wrong from a mile away” and without cutting a carcase open.

But he also says that to reduce the risk of diseased carcases entering the slaughterhouse in the first instance, “there should be some sort of information coming from the farm to the slaughterhouse.” He explains that if you get information about diseased animals and the treatments they have had at the farm level, then inspection would be tighter.

Yet, Bell still argues that less inspection will result in contamination issues and says that past experiences show that reducing visual inspection will result in more food contamination scandals. He highlights a recent campaign launched by Unison called ‘Food Wholesomeness’, aimed at getting supermarkets to back visual inspection. “We need to look for a system to make sure nothing is being missed,” he adds.

Poultry industry “for” change

Despite changes to pig inspection raising issues among some in the meat industry, potential changes to poultry inspection are exciting those in the sector.

British Poultry Council (BPC) director of food policy Richard Griffiths says there is much need for change in poultry meat inspection. “We have been urging the Commission for years to review this, and to move from a visual to microbiological inspection makes sense,” he says.

Griffiths explains that the hazards in poultry inspection are more often than not “non-visual”; he says biological hazards, such as salmonella, cannot be seen with the naked eye. “We are expecting the Commission proposals in the autumn along the same lines and form as the pig ones. Everyone is on visual inspection and this is not fit-for-purpose and visual does not contribute to safety,” says Griffiths.

He adds that visual inspection has a place, but it is more of a “quality assurance” system in terms of the product and its health and welfare. “Fundamentally the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is supported in this because they are doing something that is fit for purpose,” he concludes.

What next?

The FSA says any future official controls in slaughterhouses must provide effective protection against meat-borne risks to public health, for the welfare of animals and against the risks associated with the spread of animal disease. “We will not support changes that we consider will reduce the effectiveness of official controls in slaughterhouses,” Flaherty says.

He explains that calculating the cost of meat inspection change is difficult to do at the moment, as proposals have not been brought forward for all species as yet. However, he claims that moving to a “more risk-based” system should “provide the industry with greater flexibility in approach and lower costs”.

With regards to training ‘modernised pig meat inspectors’, he says, they will all be government officials as meat inspectors will stop palpating and incising at post-mortem, as routine. “Meat inspectors in pig slaughterhouses are government officials, so any necessary training will be provided by the government.”

Waiting for change

All the industry has left to do now is wait for more proposals for change to meat inspection. Following the change to pig meat inspection in 2014, there will be changes to poultry inspection and then red meat inspection.

Change to a 100-year-old system will be debated and criticism will always follow actions that fail. However, the science behind the changes is strongly supported by the industry, which points out that there are new threats to meat hygiene, which would have been unknown when the original rules were put in place.