Inquest opens a can of worms

Dyes used to stain meat may have caused or contributed to the death of a meat inspector from asthma, a West Country inquest heard.

The conclusion of West Somerset coroner Michael Rose at the resumed inquest was that Frederick Gulliver died of acute, severe asthma. The possibility of an occupational origin caused by dyes used at slaughterhouses cannot be excluded, he said. The inquest also heard from a Taunton hospital doctor who agreed that Gulliver's occupation may have been a factor although there was no medical evidence to prove it.

The comments have triggered an investigation by the Meat Hygiene Service and alarm within the Association of Meat Inspectors that it has not been informed by anyone of developments at the inquest.

A spokesman for the MHS said that in light of the coroner's remarks it had requested a full transcript of the evidence given at the inquest. "We do not know how long it will take to receive this, but I think it's fairly safe to say that we will be taking legal advice on the possibility of any claim being made against the MHS by Mr Gulliver's legal personal representatives," the spokesman added.

When told by the Meat Trades Journal of the inquest findings, the Association of Meat Inspectors said it would review the situation as it was a real concern for members. Chief executive, Pierce Furlong, said he was "absolutely gobsmacked" that no one had informed his organisation of the inquest findings. He thought safety concerns over the use of dye to stain specified risk material had been settled and sorted a long time time ago. "There was a concern. We took it to the MHS and we were assured that they had looked at it and it is not a risk," he said. He added: "I would be absolutely dumbfounded if they hadn't done a proper risk assessment."

Two dyes have been used to stain meat - Patent Blue V for OTM material and Tartrazine for staining offal and non SRM carcase matter, including stomach and liver.

The MHS says that while it was responsible for ensuring that all specified risk material is stained to prevent it entering the food chain, processors purchase the dyes that are used. These are mixed with water to achieve the correct concentration. Although able to specify the precautions to be taken by staff when supervising spraying as laid down in its health & safety manual the MHS said that on safety of the stain the assumption was that either the Rural Payments Agency or Defra must have satisfied themselves at the time OTMS started that it could be safely used, albeit with precautions. At the time of going to press, neither Defra or the RPA were able to comment.

The inquest was told that Gulliver, who was believed to be in his 60s, had been exposed to a mist of dye when supervising the correct spraying of meat. Technicians, rather than meat inspectors, are responsible for spraying special risk material today.

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