'Diseased meat could go undetected' due to rule change

An FSA inspector in the abattoir in Eye, Suffolk The FSA says the new rules prevent bacteria being spread

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More diseased meat could end up in sausages and pies because of changes to safety checks in slaughterhouses, hygiene inspectors have warned.

Inspectors in abattoirs used to be able to cut open pig carcasses to check for signs of disease.

But under new European regulations, supported by Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA), they will have to rely on visual checks alone.

The FSA says the new system avoids the risk of harmful bacteria being spread.

Around eight million pigs a year are slaughtered for meat in the UK.

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

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Mr Spellman, who is director general of the European Working community for Food inspectors and Consumer protection (EWFC), which represents meat inspectors across the EU, said: "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."

Meat from pigs' heads, is recovered by specialised parts of boning plants and goes into pies, sausages and other processed foods.

The new regulations have been drawn up by the European Food Safety Authority, an agency funded by the EU, but they are based on scientific advice from the FSA.

The FSA's chief operating officer Andrew Rhodes told the BBC it was better to have a hands-off system using visual checks to reduce cross-contamination, because bugs like E. coli and campylobacter are causing scientists more concern.

He said: "The risks to the consumers are increasingly from microbiological and pathogenic hazards and that's what we must control.

"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, we have to do this properly."

But the FSA's support for the new measures puts them at odds with many of their own frontline staff, the 1,100 meat inspectors who check safety standards in Britain's 350 slaughterhouses and in meat-cutting plants which process carcasses.

Some in the slaughtering industry are also opposing the changes.

A butcher working on a pig carcass in an abattoir in Suffolk Some in the meat industry say the rules will lead to a two-tier system

Kevin Burrows, of C and K Meats, owns an abattoir in Suffolk whose main business is pork.

He sees the new hands-off approach as "a backward step" and says his customers in Asian markets still insist on their pork being checked in the old way, which the FSA has agreed to allow him to do.

But he says: "Why should an exported product be under higher scrutiny than a British product? We'll end up with a two-tier system."

Shadow food and farming minister Huw Irranca-Davies has called for an urgent meeting with the FSA.

He says he is not convinced by the science he has seen on the matter and is worried the new rules could damage Britain's exports, which rely on a reputation for high welfare and meat hygiene standards.

Mr Irranca-Davies said: "We want to see absolute categoric assurances that this is not jeopardising consumer protection and we're not reassured yet because despite the work that the FSA has been doing over a few years now to look at this issue, what they have presented to us is not a compelling case for a change in the way that this works."

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesman said: "The changes to the meat inspections will mean less cutting and handling of carcasses and offal, reducing the potential risk of harmful bacteria spreading onto the meat.

"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."

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