Hundreds of pig carcasses had to be destroyed after American officials discovered worrying hygiene failings at UK meat plants, the Bureau can reveal.
Inspections of four big plants licensed to export meat to the US found major food safety breaches including meat contaminated with faecal matter entering production lines, carcasses being declared fit for human consumption without adequate checks, and blood and fat being left on conveyor belts overnight.
Issues at a Yorkshire abattoir operated by Karro Foods, one of the UK’s leading pork processors were so serious that company executives agreed to destroy 468 pig carcasses that had travelled through the facility on the day of the inspection.
One meat inspection source told the Bureau the incident was “very, very serious” and said in their experience the destruction of so many carcasses was “unheard of”.
The breaches, uncovered by officials from the United States Department for Agriculture (USDA), prompted the intervention of the UK’s Food Standards Agency and the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs. They wrote to their US counterparts to outline action taken to “ensure that these findings do not re-occur” and offer assurances UK meat inspection regimes were “robust”.
Both the FSA and companies involved took steps to review and tighten up procedures in the wake of the USDA findings, according to a letter from the UK’s chief vet, Christine Middlemiss.
At three of the four plants inspected (no hygiene breaches were identified at the fourth), USDA officials found food safety breaches that experts say, left undetected, could have increased the risk of consumers being exposed to contaminated or diseased meat if they hadn’t been detected. The breaches included:
- Meat contaminated with faecal matter was found to have entered a production area processing food for human consumption
- Pig carcasses were declared fit for human consumption without being sufficiently inspected by veterinary staff
- Inspection staff failed to take immediate action after dirty carcasses - contaminated with faeces - had entered production
- Conveyor belts for cutting raw pork were found contaminated with debris - including fat and blood - from meat processed the previous day
Such failings could potentially “all too easily” result in contaminated meat entering the food chain and making people ill, said Professor Erik Millstone, a public health expert from the University of Sussex. “Dangerous and prohibited materials were not removed from production lines.”
Kerry McCarthy MP, shadow secretary of state for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs until 2016, described the hygiene breaches as “disgusting” and said she would be seeking assurances from the FSA that appropriate enforcement action had been taken.
“It’s somewhat ironic, given that we are so concerned about a post-Brexit trade deal opening the door to US meat imports with lower food standards that it’s a US agency that has uncovered these violations,” she added.
USDA also raised concerns over the use of contract staff to carry out key meat inspection duties within UK abattoirs, concluding there was insufficient oversight of contract personnel by the FSA, which regulates the UK’s meat sector.
This issue is a particularly serious one, warned Professor Millstone, given the FSA is planning to increase its outsourcing of food safety checks to commercial operators.
In 2017 the FSA awarded a £43 million pound contract to an external company to supply contract meat hygiene inspectors and official veterinarians to work in meat plants in England and Wales. Around 460 contract personnel - thought to be about half of the overall number of inspection staff - are currently deployed.
The UK’s meat sector is under increasing scrutiny following a string of high profile scandals in recent years, including the “horsegate” affair, where undeclared horsemeat was found in numerous beef products, and serious hygiene breaches being uncovered in chicken plants that could exacerbate the spread of campylobacter, a leading cause of food poisoning.
Most recently - in February - a Bureau investigation revealed food safety failings in nearly half of British meat plants, including factories operated by the meat processor Russell Hume, which went into administration after an FSA probe. The regulator is currently carrying out a review into meat cutting plants nationwide following the scandal.
The audits by officials from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) took place in September 2017, but details only came to light after US officials completed a report into the failings earlier this year.
Documents seen by the Bureau reveal food safety rules designed to ensure all parts of an animal - including the carcass and its internal organs - are inspected before being released for human consumption were flouted at the Karro in Hull operated by Cranswick Country Foods. Cranswick is one of the largest food producers in Britain.
Correlation of body parts for inspection purposes is important as disease may be more evident in internal organs, which would in turn prompt a more thorough examination of the whole carcass. Meat from animals not inspected in their entirety should not be released for public consumption, the regulations state.
“In order to make a judgement on the fitness of a carcass and offal the inspection team must see all parts of the animal,” Ron Spellman, deputy secretary general of the European Association of Food and Meat Inspectors (EWFC), told the Bureau.
Yet at the Karro plant it was found that on one occasion a pig carcass was presented at the post-mortem inspection station without its organs. “That carcass was later released for human consumption... without the benefit of final disposition by a veterinarian,” said USDA. Four other incidents were recorded, and similar issues were detected at Cranswick's plant.
Procedures for dealing with contamination were also found to be substandard at both plants. Minimising the risk of meat being contaminated with faecal matter is a priority, as it can contain bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses. Livestock can become caked with faeces on farms or in transport to slaughter and this can be transferred to carcasses during processing.
At the Karro factory, when the disposal system for condemned meat failed to operate adequately, meat containing faecal material was allowed to enter the “offal-edible product processing area” which produces food for public consumption. “It appears that this process was not monitored frequently by industry personnel or the FSA meat inspection personnel,” USDA officials reported.
At the Cranswick plant, USDA inspectors noted: “In one incident, the viscera [intestines] and back of corresponding carcass was covered with faecal material; the meat inspectors at the viscera and initial carcass inspection failed to [take] immediate corrective action. This carcass was later trimmed [where faeces is cut off the meat] before further processing.”
At a third large meat plant run by another company, USDA inspectors stated they had uncovered evidence of inadequate cleaning procedures, observing “multiple particles of fat or blood, from previous day's production on conveyor belts of cutting raw pork department. Also, two spots of chipping paint and one area of rust were observed on overhead structure.”
An internal review carried out by Karro later found there was “a lack of training to guide managers and operatives” in relation to carcass procedures.
Responding to the findings, an FSA spokesperson said: “We carry out thousands of audits and unannounced inspections each year and any issues that may pose a risk to public health will result in immediate and robust enforcement action.
“The report published by US authorities in May states that their analysis ‘did not identify any deficiencies that represented an immediate threat to public health’ and the four sites they visited continue to be approved for export.
“Where deficiencies were detected, the food businesses initiated a programme of action which included additional training and enhanced controls and the FSA strengthened verification procedures and increased the frequency of checks.”
Karro declined to comment and Cranswick referred the Bureau to the FSA.
Steve Nash, a food safety advisor whose daughter died after becoming ill with E.coli, said he was “very disappointed that the FSA have failed to deal with the continuing problems in slaughterhouses and meat production.”
Contaminated meat is known to be linked to the spread of food poisoning bugs such as campylobacter, salmonella and E.coli.
Food poisoning illnesses affect about a million people in the UK each year, according to official estimates, with around 20,000 admitted to hospital and 500 deaths annually. Foods most often linked to food poisoning include red meat, poultry and fish.
Although the FSA insists its inspection systems prevent contaminated meat reaching the public, a whistleblower inspector last year claimed meat that had already been health marked - cleared for human consumption - could become contaminated.
A recent survey by Unison revealed that 98% of meat hygiene inspectors believed that the industry “couldn’t be trusted to ensure no faecal contamination was present before meat was sold on to consumers.” Nearly all inspectors polled said that “staff directly employed by the meat industry couldn’t be trusted to recognise and remove diseased sections of meat.”
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