De-sinewed meat firm sparks pan-European row

An embattled Yorkshire meat company, faced with financial catastrophe by an EU-driven ban on its innovative products, has ended up at the heart of a blazing pan-European row.

Newby Foods uses a novel method of removing meat from butchered bones, which is then pressed through small holes to remove any bone, gristle or sinew. The company says the resulting product is absolutely safe and virtually indistinguishable from ordinary mince.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) allowed Newby to label its products as "de-sinewed meat" until April last year – but the company says the body then "keeled over" under intense pressure from the European Commission and performed a dramatic volte-face.

The FSA imposed a moratorium on Newby producing de-sinewed meat from beef and lamb bones and re-classified its pork and poultry products as "mechanically separated meat" (MSM) – which is far less valuable because it cannot count towards the meat content of food products.

The company, based in Newby Wiske, says it lost £720,000 in the first six weeks after the decision, and has accused the FSA of allowing itself to be "bullied" into kowtowing to EU threats that certain British meat products could be banned from European shelves if the UK did not comply.

Earlier this year, High Court judge, Mr Justice Edwards Stewart, referred the dispute to the the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for a definitive ruling on whether the company’s products can be sold as ‘meat preparations’.

However, that process usually takes many months and, in the meantime, Newby Foods was left in commercial limbo, with 40 jobs and £5m-worth of investment on the line.

In July, the same judge came to the company’s aid when he allowed it to sell 51 tonnes of de-sinewed lamb that had been sitting in its cold store for use in cat and dog food and ruled that it could continue to produce de-sinewed pork and poultry meats – and sell them as meat preparations – until the ECJ gives a decision.

The judge ordered the FSA to take no steps to enforce the moratorium in respect of Newby’s poultry and pork products, but stopped short of allowing the company to use ruminant bones – from cattle or sheep – in its production process, pending the word from Luxembourg.

Now, in a new ruling, the judge has revealed that the steps he took to save the company from going out of business have brought a furious response from the European Commission which applied to intervene in the court dispute.

However, expressing his "considerable sympathy" for Newby, the judge said the Commission had not come up with any "cogent" reasons why he should refuse assistance to the company in relation to its pork and poultry products.

The judge was not convinced that allowing the company to continue producing and selling those products would have "any adverse effect on the consumer or provoke action from other member states".

Noting evidence that meat suppliers in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands are producing de-sinewed pork and poultry without always labelling it as MSM, the judge said that the refusal of any assistance to Newby "would almost certainly put it out of business".

However, the judge – "without any enthusiasm" – refused to lift the ban on the company producing de-sinewed meat form ruminant bones.

He said: "This is a very sensitive market in the light of recent scandals.

"I find that there is a risk, albeit a very low one, that if the company were allowed to produce de-sinewed meat from lamb bones, this could produce some form of reaction from one or more other member states of the EU that could have the potential to damage the UK meat industry."

The company’s counsel, Hugh Mercer QC, earlier told the court: "How does it come about that you have a regulator that keels over and accepts the view of a foreign body? It would not do it if it were any other body than the European Commission."

However, the FSA insisted it acted lawfully and the decision brought the UK "into line" with the Commission’s stance.

The court heard that the FSA was deeply concerned that, if the Commission were to seek to impose safeguard measures of any description, that would have a catastrophic effect on the reputation of the UK meat industry.

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