Modernising meat inspection

Andrew RhodesThe Food Standards Agency (FSA) sometimes gets a bad press in Meat Trades Journal and it is often challenging for us, keeping consumers safe and implementing regulations. This is the first blog Ive written for MTJ and there are many things I could have picked as a topic, but I thought I would start with an important issue that has had a long journey.

Over the years we have probably all said, at one time or another, that the regulations around the inspection of fresh meat need updating. The regulations are not designed for the threats we face today and that needs putting right. That doesnt mean the whole regime is pointless far from it; we still need to make sure consumers are presented with clean meat from animals that are fit to become food.

There has been considerable discussion over the years on how meat inspection should be modernised, to remove the elements that practices, science and technology have made unnecessary, but also to refocus on where the real risks are. The first such control to be modernised is pig inspection and this takes effect from June this year.

A key element to consider when revising all of these controls is that there is good Food Chain Information (FCI) that goes back to farmers. If good Food Business Operator controls are in place and the FCI is good, then we can place more faith in the system. However, this does mean that some of the testing thresholds will change as a result as part of that rebalancing of how controls work.

So what will this actually mean in practice?

Pigs will now be visually inspected and that means that officials working in slaughterhouses will not cut and palpate lymph nodes and organs as routine on every pig, as they do now. Instead, from June, officials will use their professional judgement to determine when they need to detain pig carcases or offal for closer inspection for example, in cases where visible abnormalities suggest a generalised condition. Evidence from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) showed that this approach could help reduce microbiological contamination such as salmonella.

We have run trials and consulted with the meat industry to find what works best and have been training inspectors over the past few months. It is really important that food business operators (FBOs) make sure they are also ready to make the change and take advantage of these new ways of working.

What about testing?

The current testing requirement for trichinella is 100% of pigs presented for slaughter. This is neither risk-based nor proportionate. The new approach will focus on higher-risk pigs, such as sows and boars, and pigs that are not from controlled housing conditions.

In practice, this means we will continue to test sows and boars across the UK for trichinella. We will also need to start testing all pigs that are not from controlled housing conditions these are defined in the regulations and include a range of activities that reduce the risk of the pigs being infected with the parasite. Importantly, the definition does not exclude pigs that have outdoor access, provided that the outdoor access does not present a risk of introducing trichinella into the holding.

In our consultation, we proposed that non-controlled housing conditions in the UK would mean pigs that spend their entire lives outdoors (such as free-range and organic pigs). This has been supported by the consultation responses and we are happy with this view. However, if a farmer considers that any of their pigs free-range and organic or not do not meet the requirements for controlled housing conditions, then they should declare that on the FCI. So, it will be really important that businesses make sure the FCI they receive is clear about how the pigs have been kept.

While this is a small increase in testing overall, we recognise it will take time to get the systems for the new trichinella testing regime working correctly across the UK. We therefore intend to work with industry from June to ensure that awareness of the changes improves, and the necessary steps are taken to ensure UK pigs can be properly tested. We expect the UK industry to be compliant with the testing requirements by the end of October 2014.

Salmonella

There will be changes to the existing Process Hygiene Criterion for salmonella in June. These changes will only affect slaughterhouses that process more than 37,500 pigs a year, so there is no impact on low-throughput establishments, which will not be required to carry out testing.

For those businesses that do currently test for salmonella, if five positive results are found in any 10-week period, there is currently a requirement to review the slaughter controls and processes or take other appropriate action. From June, this requirement will be triggered if three positive results are found, not five. Also, in the case of repeated unsatisfactory results, FBOs will need to draw up an action plan to address the problem, and this will be supervised by the Official Veterinarian.

What next?

This is the first control to be modernised, so it is important that we learn from it, learn quickly and, as we get things bedded in, we can see what this does to the controls overall and, of course, to costs. It is vital that everyone involved works together and businesses make sure they can meet the requirements of the changed inspection methods. If you cannot demonstrate how the pigs were kept, you cannot take advantage so make sure this is right. Other controls are going through the process of being updated, so the more we learn from these changes, the better we can make other changes in the future.

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