VC ruling hangs in the balance

Is the UK meat industry working hard enough to persuade Europe to raise the vertebral column rule to 30 months? The jury is still out

The meat industry needs to work harder to show it is complying with the law if it is to get Europe to agree to lift the vertebral column (VC) rule from 24 months to 30 months.

At present the outlook for this is hard to see, following four incidents involving BSE testing irregularities and a survey carried out in September by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which showed that 10% of cutting plants are non-compliant when it comes to handling of 24-30-month

VC-specified risk material (SRM). But you never know.

The four BSE testing incidences included two of over-30-month (OTM) cattle entering the food chain untested. One involved Dunbia Meats in Northern Ireland in October and the other a farm shop in Somerset in December. The farm shop had its OTM licence suspended, but Dunbia did not. It has also recently emerged that ABP Newry had its OTM

licence suspended in July and West Devon Meats last month over BSE testing irregularities, amid allegations of brain stem switching.


The FSA survey covered a total of 456 red meat handling plants in England, Scotland and Wales and 24 in Northern Ireland. While no non-compliances were identified in Northern Ireland, 10% of establishments in the rest of the UK were found to be non-compliant.

In approximately half of these non-compliant establishments, there was evidence of meat containing 24-30-month VC SRM being sold on without removal from the carcase and entering the domestic food chain. The FSA said some domestic butchers might have been receiving 24-30-month VC SRM, but not removing or disposing of it correctly.

Other non-compliances mentioned in the FSA survey include: failure to stain SRM (9%;) use of incorrect stain (2%); delayed staining of SRM (2%); failure to identify SRM as Category 1 Animal By-Products (ABP) (6%); and failure to consign VC SRM as Category 1 ABP (11%). However, there was no evidence of illegal export of meat containing 24-30-month VC SRM.

The FSA has named some of the companies who have breached SRM controls on its website. These include: ABP Shrewsbury, where spinal cord was found in a forequarter of beef at a receiving point on the 16 May; at North Counties Meat Group plant, where SRM VC from bovines aged 24-30 months was not segregated, stained and disposed of as Category 1 ABP on 17 July; and at F Drury & Sons, where spinal cord was found in a quarter of beef at the receiving plant on 5 October.

The FSA said enforcement

action, including a number of

follow-up visits had been taken and all non-compliant establishments were issued with either a verbal or written warning, which, if not complied with, could result in prosecution.

Processors lay some of the blame for these SRM failures on the change in law, which required VC SRM to be removed from cattle of 24 months, instead of 30 months, to allow UK exports back into Europe in May. They maintain there was some con-

fusion about the procedures, both among processors and inspection services, and so it was "a bit disingenuous" of the authorities to put all the blame on the meat proces-sing industry.


Peter Scott, director of the British Meat Processors Association, believes that, while some people did not completely understand the changes in VC rules, which came in May, others did not agree with them. However, he is adamant that the industry is seen to comply. "The law is the law and if that means butchers not receiving bone-in-beef, that's the price we have to pay."

Scott believes this is the only way that the meat industry will persuade Europe to raise the VC SRM age limit from 24 to 30 months. However, Alistair Donaldson, executive manager of the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, believes 10% non-compliance was a pretty good result and he is pressing ahead to get the government to raise the age at which VC SRM has to be removed to 30 months.

"We were hoping the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) opinion allowing this would be published in September," he says, "but it won't now be until the end of January - and then the European Parliament has right of scrutiny. So it is difficult to predict the timetable for change."

The brain sample incidents, claims Scott, "were a cock-up rather than a conspiracy". He says it was regrettable that they happened, but the good thing was that laboratories had picked them up.

It now remains to be seen whether EFSA agrees that the UK meat industry is doing a good job in meeting food safety legis-lation. The agency is due to give its verdict at the end of January. Let's hope, for the industry's sake, it is good news.