No, TB reactor meat in the human food chain isn’t the new ‘Horsegate’. It isn’t the ‘new’ anything. That reactor cattle are allowed to be processed for food – provided they don’t have lesions in more than one organ or part of the carcase – is neither new nor some big, dirty secret.
Only two weeks ago we ran a prominent piece in The Grocer on TB reactors in the meat chain, outlining supermarkets’ and key suppliers’ positions on the issue as well as that of the Food Standards Agency.
Did we unwittingly stumble upon an amazing new food scandal? Far from it. We decided to run that piece precisely because it was known that TB reactor cattle were in the food chain.
As the controversy about the badger cull pilots has grown, we have become aware of growing interest from anti-cull voices in TB reactors in the meat supply chain. We had already seen pressure applied to supermarkets and suppliers over whether or not they source milk from farmers in culling areas, and figured there was a good chance campaigners might eventually turn their attention to meat.
At heart, this ‘scandal’ is about making a point about the badger cull, not protecting people from the supposed threat of “diseased” TB meat
And meat is an easy target at the moment. In the wake of the horsemeat scandal, the “revelation” that cattle that have tested positive for tuberculosis can still be deemed fit for consumption offers all the right ingredients for a front-page shocker – with an extra-generous ‘yuck’ factor thrown in for good measure. (I don’t know much about meat industry PR, but I suspect you try to keep references to ‘lesions’ to an absolute minimum.)
But at heart, this ‘scandal’ is about making a point about the badger cull, not protecting people from the supposed threat of “diseased” TB meat. It’s a tool to point out apparent inconsistencies in Defra’s justification for the cull: if the cull is about protecting human health, then why is the government allowing TB meat into the food chain? And if, on the other hand, human health isn’t at risk after all, then why justify the cull on that basis?
Defra has hit back at suggestions it ever claimed the cull was justified primarily on the basis of protecting human health, but it’s not difficult to see how some of its more emphatic statements on the cull (such as Owen Paterson’s comment to The Sunday Times that bovine TB “can transfer to human beings and kill human beings”) could be seen as just that. Scare tactics tend to backfire in the end, and that’s exactly what’s happened on this occasion. There should be a lesson in there.
Having different retailer positions on TB reactor meat hasn’t helped either. Claims that many supermarkets have “banned” the meat from their own supply chains has further fuelled speculation that – despite assurances from Defra and the FSA – there is something not quite right about TB reactor meat. In particular Tesco’s position that it doesn’t want TB reactors “due to public health concerns and surrounding the issue of bovine TB and its risk to consumers” will raise questions. Its technical director, Tim Smith, was previously CEO of the FSA – consumers would be right to ask why, under his technical leadership, Tesco is now flagging up public health concerns when the FSA says the risk to the public is very low.
The Grocer asked retailers and suppliers to spell out their policies on cattle that have tested positive for bovine TB…
Of course, “public health concerns” might not necessarily mean there are actual concerns about public health – it could just as easily refer to concerns held by the public (justified or otherwise). And there are other possible reasons – unconnected to food safety – as to why some retailers may not have bovine TB reactors in their supply chains. For a start, slaughtering TB-positive cattle is a specialist job that not all meat suppliers carry out – if a retailer happens to buy from a supplier not engaged in slaughtering such cattle, they end up with a TB reactor-free supply chain largely by default.
Furthermore, although Defra and the FSA say the risk to human health is very low, it’s not zero. A retailer might therefore make the perfectly rational commercial decision to eliminate all risk by excluding TB reactors – that doesn’t make eating the meat unsafe, but it’s easy to see how consumers could be left with that impression. Trying to differentiate on basic aspects of food safety always risks undermining confidence – a consistent message from all food business operators on this issue (for or against) would have been helpful.
But those who wish to use lingering public concern about the integrity of the meat supply chain as a springboard to make a point about the badger cull are also playing a dangerous game. One of the few redeeming aspects of the horsemeat crisis has been renewed consumer interest – and confidence – in British meat. Suggesting to consumers that British farmers are secretly feeding them “diseased” meat when a) the meat in question has been assessed to be safe and b) a positive TB test doesn’t necessarily mean an animal has developed tuberculosis and is “diseased” in any case is deeply troubling.
Being forceful in your views for or against the cull is perfectly legitimate; scaring the public for the sake of getting one over the government in an argument isn’t.