DSM debacle
Published:  03 August, 2012

Pressure is mounting on the government to urge the European Commission to lift the moratorium on desinewed meat (DSM), following the publication of results from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Select Committee inquiry on 23 July.

EFRA called for the government to make "every possible effort" to persuade the Commission to reverse its decision at the earliest possible opportunity, garnering support among member states who use similar meat production processes to increase pressure on the Commission. It also urged the government to seriously consider the option of taking legal action against the Commission unless the moratorium was "immediately" lifted. However, EFRA admitted legal action would be dependent on the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) supporting the UK's position.

With this ruling not likely to come before September or October, any "immediate" resolution is looking increasingly unlikely. In the meantime, EFRA admitted that the Commission's actions may already have irreparably damaged parts of the British meat industry, with DSM producers such as Newby Foods almost halving its workforce and seeing profitability plummet by 75%. The ripples, it said, would continue be felt across the wider processing and retail sectors, with potential price rises in processed foods, such as burgers, sausages and chicken Kievs as processors reformulate using more expensive meat, while the value of DSM material derived from non-ruminant bones, now reclassified as mechanically separated meat (MSM) is also likely to fall, as it no longer counts towards a product's meat content.

Speaking at a British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) lunch in May, Agriculture Minister Jim Paice assured the meat industry that the government would fight its corner. "I've no intention of dropping the issue," he said. "Although I'm not making promises over the outcome, we're determined to pursue it as hard as we possibly can."

Minimising the impact

Last week a Defra spokesman told Meat Trades Journal that it was working hard, alongside the FSA, to do everything it could to minimise the impact of the ban. She said: "Ministers have discussed this directly with the Commissioner and pressed for scientific evidence to be considered. Some important progress has been made. We've established that wishbone meat and meat from recognised pork and poultry cuts, including turkey necks, fall outside the scope of the moratorium, which according to the British Poultry Council, in their written evidence to EFRA, account for over half of DSM production."

In the meantime, it seems the government's hands may be tied at least until the outcome of the EFSA decision and the industry may have little choice but to live with the moratorium and find ways to adapt to the new market realities.

Stephen Rossides, director of the BMPA, told Meat Trades Journal this could trigger the Commission to change its mind, or the government to mount a legal challenge. "Any policy, legal [challenge] and legislative change will flow from whatever EFSA responds to the Commission," Rossides said. However, he noted that the question over DSM from ruminant bones for example, which is rooted in Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) legislation, does not seem to have been put to the Commission, which means EFSA is unlikely to address this.

It is also hoped that other member states may be sufficiently alarmed by the Commission's actions to support the UK in its aim to increase pressure on the Commission a process that may be hastened with the start of FVO visits to other member states in the autumn. Rossides said that while there was sympathy for the UK, he was sceptical that there would be great support of the UK's interpretation that all this material from all species was DSM. "But there might be support that the Commission's interpretation of what is called MSM is too strict," he said.

Taking the legal route

EFRA's recommendation, that the government should consider taking legal action against the Commission if the moratorium is not immediately lifted, is also a possibility, albeit one that the government sees as uninviting.

"Ministers decided they didn't want to face up to the Commission and they're not confident about legal success in challenging them. They took the view that they had no alternative to accede to the demands and I'm not sure what circumstances have changed to make them change that position," Rossides said. "The only other possibility is that industry might take legal action to challenge this."

The Minister had previously told EFRA he was 'sympathetic' to the possibility of supporting businesses appealing for compensation, but whether government or the FSA will offer its whole-hearted support if industry does follow this route remains to be seen.