Campylobacter, the bacteria most commonly responsible for food poisoning, made 198,252 ill in Europe in 2009. According to the EU’s food-borne illnesses summary report, it affected nearly twice the number of salmonella victims, who numbered 108,614, and vastly outstripped the 1,645 people made ill by listeria.
Campylobacter is present in 70% of fresh chickens, according to Food Standards Agency (FSA) research and yet the current system of meat hygiene inspections in slaughterhouses can do little to eliminate it.
That’s because at the heart of the current hygiene regime is a desperately outdated system, based on government vets checking animals before slaughter then assessing the carcases afterwards for disease.
The central aim is preventing contaminated meat entering the food chain, but, says Javier Dominguez, deputy chief veterinary officer of the FSA, the system was “designed 100 years ago by a German vet” to look for defects visible to the naked eye such as parasites. Stephen Rossides, chief executive of the British
Meat Processors Association (BMPA) agrees. “It is a very old-fashioned, very rigid system, which focuses on food hazards that are not the main ones of today,” he says.
Meat processors and the FSA agree the system desperately needs modernising, because today, the main cause of food-borne disease is microbiological, such as campylobacter, salmonella and E.coli.
“There is a need to change what is being done,” says Peter Hewson, former deputy veterinary director of the FSA, who now works with the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS). “It is not cost-effective. It is about removing any controls that aren’t really needed in public health terms to make it seen as more efficient and more effective.”
Modernising meat hygiene inspection is a strategic priority of the FSA’s strategy for 2010–2015. A Europe-wide review of meat hygiene controls is being conducted by the European Food Standards Agency (EFSA), and regulatory changes will only be made if they are supported by robust scientific evidence and following negotiations with other EU member states.
“Hopefully [by 2015] we will have a system that will protect consumers better,” says Dominguez. “It will be better for the taxpayer, because hopefully it will be more cost-effective, and it will be better for the regulators, because we can put all of our efforts into those who deserve more control because they have lower levels of compliance.”
The aim will be to improve public health protection while delivering a more risk-based, effective and proportionate system for official controls on meat. Proposals are likely to take account of animal health and welfare considerations as well.
So by 2015, what could a new system look like? “I hope we will move to a system that is more risk-based,” says Dominguez. “First, that it will target the main meat-borne pathogens and second, that it will be focused on those food business operators (FBOs) that have a lower level of compliance with the legislation.” This may mean far less intervention by government vets, he says. “So unlike now, where every slaughterhouse has an official inspection every day they operate and 100% of the time they operate. It may change depending on the level of compliance.”
Dominguez emphasises it is a long, complex road ahead. “The EC is the body that has to propose any changes in the legislation, and they haven’t made any proposals because they are waiting for opinions. EFSA is looking at controls on meat species by species. Once the EC has this information, they will run a round-table in which they invite stakeholders to meetings in Brussels to hear their opinions.” Only then will any Europe-wide changes be proposed.
Separately the FSA is pressing ahead with plans to charge the full cost of inspections to businesses it operates within, which will start in April 2012. The link, however, according to Hewson is that the FSA is “very keen to see that what they do is seen to be required”, and therefore is keen for any unnecessary processes to be removed as part of the review.
The bad feeling between the FSA and meat processors over the question of charging for inspections has been well-documented. Rossides emphasises, however, that on the issue of meat hygiene, all parties are in agreement. “We may be having exchanges of views with the FSA about the cost of hygiene inspections and full cost recovery, but I think where we are absolutely united is on meat controls,” he says. “We are very pleased to see that the European authorities are looking at future controls, including who does what and why. And we are very pleased that the FSA is supportive of that programme of possible change in Europe.”
Rossides says there are two areas that are particularly important. “Are the actual controls appropriate to the risk?” he asks. “There is a lot of poking and cutting of animals by inspectors, and actually that can spread pathogens.” Secondly, he argues, the role of government vets could be scaled back. “You could delegate some tasks to plant staff,” he says. “If you have got a blank sheet of paper, you might start then to think, ‘does the official veterinarian need to do this when he can focus on that?’ Vets will always have a role in plants. At the moment we are saying that, within the existing frameworks, we accept the FSA is the competent authority and it is responsible for approving plants, carrying out audits and for enforcement. Other inspection duties, we think – and the legislation provides for alternative approaches – [could be carried out by] approved accredited third bodies. And in that context, the tasks of official vets could be done by third-party control bodies from the private sector, but ultimately under the control of the FSA.”
Because the review is being conducted across Europe, led by EFSA, any new regulations will take into account the disease risks of each country, adds Hewson. “If a country is relatively free of tuberculosis, which the UK isn’t of course, then we could stop cutting lots of glands at post-mortem inspections, because the risk of cutting those glands is that it makes it more likely it will release pathogens than TB, so it is better not to do it as long as the level of TB is low enough. It is recognised that meat inspection can cause hygiene problems by handling.”
So what can be done in the meantime to tackle the bacteria commonly found in meat responsible for causing food poisoning? In addition to the 70% of chicken carcases contaminated with campylobacter, around 20% of pigs come in to the abattoir carrying salmonella, says Hewson. He believes meat hygiene should start on the farm. “If all these animals are coming into slaughterhouses carrying all these bugs and there isn’t a critical control point in the slaughterhouse to stop it getting through, where should we be putting our action? Well, we should be putting our action, should we not, on the farm to try and sort it out? The FSA is doing it, but it is ever so difficult with modern systems of rearing.”
He says this approach has helped reduce the number of food poisonings caused by salmonella. “Salmonella was a real problem with chicken,” he says. “It is largely controlled through vaccination and good hygiene with the animal feed.”
The key point, he says, is that changes were made to procedures on the farm, not at the slaughterhouse. Similar action is needed for campylobacter, he argues. “There aren’t yet enough controls in place to tackle campylobacter, which is the largest source of food poisoning in Europe and is recognised as being down to chicken. Even where you have got good hygiene in the slaughterhouse, you are still getting 70% of chicken carcases contaminated with campylobacter in the UK at the minute and, in terms of red meat animals, you are getting 2% to 3% of the carcases contaminated with salmonella or E.coli. You cannot avoid it. Even if you [slaughtered and processed meat] in a hospital operating theatre, you would still have some contamination.”
The industry has been listening. Earlier this year, the British poultry industry set targets to cut campylobacter in chicken to 10% of carcases by 2015, a vast reduction from current levels. If achieved, it could cut food poisoning cases by 90,000 a year.
The action plan, developed by the FSA and the poultry industry, is based on improved farm biosecurity. The measures include vehicle washing, hand-washing for all farm visitors and personnel and boot-changing between chicken sheds.
Biosecurity for catching teams will come under most scrutiny. FSA Scottish chief Professor Charles Milne says there is a strong link between the thinning of bird populations by catching teams and the subsequent infection of remaining birds in the flock. “Catching teams go from farm to farm and take their gear with them. We want to see more washing facilities for these teams on farms and clean areas where they can go on their breaks.”
Back to the review of meat hygiene controls in slaughterhouses, the FSA has just released the findings from five research projects it commissioned in 2010, which focused on post-mortem inspection tasks, use of inspection data, analysis of roles within plants, requirements for outdoor pig processing, and ante-mortem inspection of young/prime animals and poultry.
The results suggest the role of official vets is sometimes unnecessary. The FSA’s review of post-mortem testing of offal by vets suggested that “only 20 out of the 33 legally required meat inspection (MI) tasks may be contributing realistically to the detection of the hazards tested in this project”. The qualitative risk assessment for the three green offal inspection scenarios showed that for the hazards studied — bovine TB, toxoplasmosis in sheep, the bacteria MAP, salmonella in pigs, classical swine fever, hernia and tail-biting in pigs — the contribution of green offal inspection was found to be of “limited value because lesions associated with these hazards are seldom manifested in green offal alone or their detection is not always followed by remedial action. Therefore, removal of this MI task would not make a substantial difference to the detection of these hazards and to their consequent risks to public health, animal health and welfare,” the FSA concluded.
According to the FSA’s review of slaughterhouses and analysis of inspection data, it is unlikely that there is any significant risk difference between post-mortem inspection of poultry carried out by Plant Inspection Assistants (PIAs) or Poultry Meat Inspectors (PMIs). “The risk assessment concluded that there would be no significant increase in risk with a reduced official veterinary presence during post-mortem inspection of poultry by PIAs, provided that the FBO management systems were adequate. However, it was considered important that the inspectors (whether PIAs or PMIs) had access to veterinarian advice and support if needed. FBO representatives indicated that larger plants would probably want to have a veterinarian with poultry experience on site to satisfy customer quality requirements in any event.”
The FSA has also published the results of consumer research into official hygiene controls. During 2010, the Agency organised a series of focus groups with consumers to ask for their views on current and future meat hygiene controls. It was found that consumers expect themselves, retailers and food outlets to monitor safety in the first instance, and have little awareness of the current system of controls. On being told more about the current system of controls, consumers were reassured by what they learnt. They also welcomed the principle of shifting the responsibility for compliance further on to the industry to improve standards. There was initial scepticism about potential changes, though there was a range of views on the options tested and some participants were more in favour of reform than others. The Agency says it will consider this new scientific evidence when developing its future policy on official meat controls.