Abattoir meat

The Observer report found ’major hygiene failings’ in a quarter of the 300 abattoirs investigated

The FSA and meat industry bodies have insisted the vast majority of meat produced in UK abattoirs is hygienic, after an article in The Observer suggested one in four slaughterhouses failed basic checks.

The investigation, by The Observer and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, analysed government audit data at more than 300 abattoirs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland and identified “major hygiene failings” in more than a quarter of the meat plants.

The failings could expose consumers to serious food poisoning illnesses such as e.coli, salmonella or campylobacter, the report claimed. It cited instances of carcases coming into contact with factory floors, often dirty abattoirs with the detritus of slaughter, cutting equipment not sterilised or washed adequately, and meat splashed with dirty water potentially containing faecal matter.

Meat processors were “failing to take basic hygiene precautions to stop contaminated meat reaching high street butchers and supermarkets”, the report added.

However, in a statement issued today, the FSA insisted the report did not “give the complete picture on the condition of meat entering the food chain, or on the work done by the FSA to ensure that the meat we eat is safe”.

It said its meat hygiene inspectors and official vets inspected every red meat and poultry carcase for visible contamination, with 99.57% of them passing its test.

The remaining 0.43% were rejected and passed back to the food business, who then had to rectify the problem. “This is the work that our staff do day in, day out, 365 days a year. If it doesn’t pass, then it does not get a health mark and it does not enter the human food chain,” it added.

Robust enforcement

“Hygiene failures are not tolerated by the FSA, and we take robust enforcement action to ensure food businesses improve their procedures to prevent meat becoming contaminated in the first place,” the report said.

“Ultimately if standards are not improving or the risk to public health is high enough, we take enforcement action up to and including taking away a premises’ approval to operate,” it added, while insisting it had no plans to “do away with real-time meat inspection”.

The Observer report was not evidence of contaminated meat making it into shops, said the British Meat Processors Association, who emphasised “the FSA does not permit the health mark to be applied to meat that is not fit for human consumption”.

The Association of Independent Meat Suppliers dismissed the report as an “obviously union-inspired anti-meat industry article”. However, AIMS secretary Norman Bagley said he was concerned with the FSA’s “unscientific response”.

“This is the same FSA that faces food safety risks from e.coli in sprouting seeds and salads, but once again, the meat sector is targeted,” he said.

“Audit findings are notoriously difficult to draw conclusions from without knowing the details of each and every factory audited,” he added. “It is not based on science, nor microbiological evidence. As ever, it is safe handling and cooking further down the food chain that provides the ultimate control point.”