Can The Meat Industry Survive the Threats of Bacterial and Viral Diseases?
1. Food-borne pathogenic infections transmitted from farm to fridge and kitchen and thence through markets have been sources of complaint and damage to the livestock industry since the early 1950s. They were dragged into public concern by outbreaks of bacterial diseases, mainly salmonellas, with multiple resistance to antibiotic treatments, especially in young calves from the dairy-industry, frail and weak because they have not received their fill of colostrum and they were highly susceptible to zoonotic diseases causing misery and deaths. In 1970 the Swann Committee reported its findings and warnings with criticisms of both the doctors and vets for the misuse of valuable drugs for therapeutic purposes and in the case of vets and their clients of growth-promoting effects in the latter context, this practice was named metaphylaxis. Just in recent months the Chief Veterinary Officer has returned to the warnings and noted the occurrence of new and increasing threats. During all these years VEGA has been monitoring the abuses and tracing the origins of trouble and possible spread into the lesser dangers associated with salad and vegetable crops, as well as the use of slaughterhouse wastes and contaminated water courses. The Central Public Health Laboratory Service and its successors, ultimately the Food Standards Agency (FSA), had to take on the increasing risks from a growing and intensified industry with risks at every stage through the food chain.
2. "UK meat inspectors warn that reducing inspection controls would threaten public health. Legitimate concern, or are they fighting for their jobs in the face of looming redundancy?", introduces a scrutiny of Healthy Concerns published by the Meat Trades Journal (MTJ; 15/05/09).
3. "For all the fighting over meat hygiene charges, industry and the Food Standards Agency (FSA) can at least agree on one thing - that meat inspection controls should be reduced and more proportionate to the risk" begins the commissioned article, which is heavily informed by an unnamed meat inspector X, "who wanted to keep his identity secret for fear of reprisals." The inspector says he is "seriously concerned" about what is happening in the MHS. The recent MHS Modernization Update report includes a number of proposals to this effect, including reduction of MHS front-line supervision of SRM controls and negotiating risk-based controls in Europe. (SRM stands for specified risk materials, which were defined on the basis of precautions taken during alarm associated with the BSE epidemic).
4. His condemnation of the OVs (the official veterinarians, "who have increasing control over inspection, are not trained to inspect meat, and are therefore heavily reliant on the meat inspector's expertise") continues: " you need to know what you are looking for and where you are looking. I know of one supermarket supplier who was replacing New Zealand with English Lamb, and it was a meat inspector who uncovered it" says X. He adds: "A lot of the young vets are inexperienced when it comes to meat and will just have the wool pulled over their eyes if we are not there."
5. Anger among meat inspectors led to a ballot for strike action last November over charges and conditions, but X does not think the proposed terms of the contract are "too terrible." "Meat inspectors are just angry because they feel intimidated and have nowhere to turn for support," he says. In some plants "there is a lot of hostility from the shop floor and management." He emphasizes that "a lot of us have been in this business for a long time. If the MHS is serious about reducing costs while maintaining public safety, perhaps it's time it started to listen a bit more closely to its own staff."
6. Meat Inspectors claim that they are "forbidden" to "talk to the press" about their concerns, but allegations on various website forums "include serious violations of SRM controls, falsified contamination records, carcases riddled with parasites, and incompetent official veterinarians." The MHS "wants to show the system is working just fine" complains X: in some areas "things are being allowed to slide, due to a fear of failures being publicized." The industry claims that meat inspection is outdated and the "controls no longer relevant," but X argues that the meat inspectors are "vital for public safety; and they do a lot more than BSE checks." He includes TB as a massive problem: "we find a case every day, and half the OVs cannot spot the signs. It's the same with parasites and septicaemia," he says.
7. "Insistent that plant hygiene controls are stringent to guarantee safety, the industry is going a step further and pressing for self-regulation." This is being tested in poultry plants, where plant inspection assistants are overseeing inspection. "Talk to any meat inspector, however, and you will get a long list of reasons why self-regulation would never work," says X. The meat inspectors have raised serious concerns over the path that the MHS is taking with reform, and warn that the public could be at risk.
8. X concedes some improvements have been achieved that were once controversial among inspectors: for instance, the no-knife policy.
"Slaughtermen have to trim the carcases themselves again, which means they are going back to the old ways of taking care over each carcase," X says. However, meat inspectors still want "a little bit of flexibility; sometimes you need a knife to investigate things. They are not allowing us to use our commonsense and we feel as if we are being treated like children."
9. It's not about keeping jobs, X argues: "We have been arguing about some of these things for a long time. I admit that we are overmanned, that MHI levels have escalated since the MHS was created, but I think that meat inspection should absolutely be left to trained personnel, not vets or plant-employed staff."
10. This lament, with the usual rant about the lack of training of (official veterinarians, OVs) and their shortcomings in experience and authority, strikes a familiar note of discord in what is an ugly business at the best of times. British vets are imbued more with a spirit of caring and curing. The Meat Hygiene Service's (MHS) vets are specifically required to assure that the animals' welfare is upheld in the whole killing area and that documentation is satisfactory in recording evidence of ill-treatment or disease before the livestock arrive at the premises. They are charged to supervise the means of killing and butchering in slaughterhouses, cutting plants, and packing stations and to assure that the lay meat inspectors observe acceptable and humane practice, avoiding contamination. Killing for the kosher and halal trades is still allowed, under the supervision of appointed slaughterers and inspectors appointed by the appropriate religious authorities, but the final approvals on grounds of hygiene
, whether or not they have satisfied the religious inspectors, rest with the MHS officials, who comprise a corps from the Veterinary Public Health Association (VPHA). The VPHA vets and FSA become implicated in specially contentious matters of hygiene and welfare for the victims of the slaughter; the lay inspectors' welfare and conditions are dealt with mainly by union representatives. A decision to halt a busy slaughterline and the cost of the interruption - or even closure of the premises and thus of profits or jobs - falls upon the MHS vet if she/he perceives some infringement of the hygiene and welfare regulations.
11. The MHS vets have the jobs of ensuring that the livestock arrive fit and clean for the dire fate that awaits them. The duties of traceability also fall on them and have been increased with claims associated with provenance, labelling, awards of subsidies, and movements of animals. These pre-slaughter inspections have had to be intensified since several incidents, notably before BSE was recognized, of animals going for slaughter already exhibiting signs of notifiable diseases, some being zoonoses involving people. In a recent harbinger of a foot-and-mouth outbreak (FMD), meat inspectors and vets competed for the honors for the first warning in a pig that had reached a slaughterhouse in Brentwood, Essex. The premises have been for many years notable for exports and transhipments of pigmeat and live animals.
12. In this case the MHS official vet suspected preliminary signs of FMD and called for a confirmatory visit from the State Veterinary Service (SVS) as the MHS inspector had no direct experience of the disease. Some arrivals of animals deemed fit for slaughter and so despatched by farmers and their vets to other premises went into the slaughterhouse with signs of agitation. (Indicative of early stages of BSE or smelling so strongly gangrenous that they
had to be put out of their misery before they were accepted for their meat). VEGA's intelligence on these events proved useful for the McLibel court case and for the BSE Inquiry and the stipulations on inspections of livestock and disposals of their mortal remains.
13. The state of livestock for slaughter now requires the MHS to score the amount and distribution of filth on the animals before they enter the lairages. This may entail the shaving at least of the brisket - an unpleasant and dangerous job and therefore costly - or despatch for a few days' stay on a farm with clean bedding available, before return to a slaughterhouse willing to accept them. All these procedures entail more transport and more stress on the stock. Further, use of water and warm sprays to wash and calm agitated animals (for a number of reasons) run counter to HACCP principles of hygiene and control (hygiene assessment and critical control points).
14. VEGA attends open meetings of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which is paying special attention to the conditions and welfare at British slaughterhouses. The conditions and regulations certainly need overhauling and revision, and they must apply to the human workers in what must still be regarded in an old-fashioned definition of these callings as offensive trades, where workers and meat inspectors are bullied and threatened. Shambles was the old word for slaughterhouses: customers and consumers hurried by as their sensitivities demanded obscurity rather than full frontal exposure of disgusting practices, to which the average citizen basked in the delusion that "they" had devised some means of "humane" killing.
15. These fallacies and delusions disgrace our society. A recent gung-ho attitude has set in, displaying sensitivities that VEGA and its forebears have been advocating and practising since the 1930s when the "humane" captive-bolt pistol for stunning was introduced and the problems over religiously ordained methods began to emerge.
16. These were days when poultry was a farmers' wife enterprise; she probably looked after the dairy-calves too, and many butchers refused to sell white veal. After WW2 animal welfarists gained much support from the lords of the hunting', shootin', and fishin' fraternity in aborting exports of horses for slaughter on the Continent to produce horse-meat, which true Brits would not brook in one of the faddy aversions demonstrated by human carnivores. Churchill and Lord Dowding had spent some tricky moments during WW2, but on this matter Commoners and Lords were at one in condemning these disgusting appetites.
17. There were a lot of these horses; they might have been pit-ponies or "vanners" - horses drawing carts for coals, milk, and bakeries to suburban houses and adored by gardeners who appreciated the equine contributions to their roses. The Trojan chain-driven van and then the electric truck and ultimately the disappearance of doorstep deliveries (or on-line from Ocado or supermarkets) have earned environmental plaudits regaling kindnesses beyond the minimum value restrictions, which later fell to the demands of free trade, but are still remembered in spirit.
18. However, we veggies who think about farming, food, and the environment contemplate before our meals - and whether we are creationists, darwinists, or geneticists - the words of the 23rd Psalm and William Blake's Little Lamb. That little lamb is being sheared appropriately and not standing shorn in the untempered wind. And we revered it with the graceful Crimond hymn. At a time when Britain's repute sinks ever lower, we can rejoice in the decency these considerations uphold.
19. It is therefore a pity that have to face the coarseness of the Independent on Sunday's Living Food (31 May 2009), headed Love me Tender, which tells us that "delicate spring lamb is one of the joys of the season, its juicy flesh imparting a succulence that you can't help falling for……grilled on a barbeque or roasted in the oven, its sweet flesh shines." A recipe for meatballs "with a slight Middle Eastern flavor" begins with 1kg minced, organic, grass-fed lamb; and for grilled leg of lamb "the lamb should look slightly charred, but not in any way burnt." It doesn't chime in with the vets' professional vows "to do their utmost for the welfare of the animals in their care."