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Defra has labelled reports of TB-infected meat entering the food chain ‘scaremongering’

The Food Standards Agency and Defra have moved to reassure consumers about the safety of British meat products following newspaper reports over the weekend suggesting “diseased” cattle were sold into the food chain.

A front-page article in The Sunday Times, based on an investigation by animal-welfare organisation Care for the Wild, yesterday reported that “thousands of diseased cattle, slaughtered after testing positive for bovine tuberculosis (bTB), are being sold for human consumption by Defra, the food and farming ministry”.

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The article prompted suggestions the UK could be heading for a new meat crisis, following the horsemeat scandal earlier this year.

However, the fact that TB reactors – i.e. cattle that have tested positive for bovine tuberculosis – are allowed in the food chain provided they do not show tuberculosis lesions in more than one organ or body part is widely documented, and the practice is in line with food safety laws. The Grocer reported on the issue two weeks ago, highlighting it as a potential area of controversy in light of the government’s planned badger cull pilot and outlining retailers’ and suppliers’ positions on TB reactor meat in their supply chains.

Although the reports suggested about 28,000 “diseased” cattle were making it into the supply chain every year, testing positive in a bovine TB test does not necessarily mean the cattle has developed bovine TB and is diseased.


Defra described the reports over the weekend as “irresponsible scaremongering” and said all meat from TB reactors had to undergo “rigorous food safety checks before the meat is passed as fit for consumption. As a result, the risk is extremely low, regardless of whether or how the meat is cooked”.

This was echoed by the FSA, which also pointed out once meat was declared fit for consumption, there was no requirement for it to be labelled as having come from TB reactors.

Two weeks ago, the FSA told The Grocer the main potential source of human infection with bovine TB was not meat but raw milk and raw milk products. Although meat from reactor cattle was a potential source of infection, no such case had ever been reported, and the risk was “very low”, it said.

“The risk is extremely low, regardless of whether or how the meat is cooked”


The agency added its approach to risk assessment on TB reactors was in line with European guidance from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

As reported by The Grocer two weeks ago, a number of retailers – such as Tesco – exclude bovine TB reactor cattle from their supply chains, but there is no food safety requirement to do so.

The slaughter of TB reactors is a specialist job, carried out by only a limited number of abattoirs under contract from the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency. Not all of the meat is used domestically, with some of it exported to Continental Europe.

Care for the Wild is opposed to the badger cull and has used the TB reactor controversy to highlight what it believes are inconsistencies in the government’s policy on TB control. “The government has repeatedly said that badgers must be culled for reasons including ‘human health’,” CEO Philip Mansbridge said. “But this justification is completely undermined by the fact they are placing large quantities of TB meat into the food supply chain without any labelling or cooking advice, which puts the public at risk.”