by Andrew Wasley
Millions of chickens could soon be sold across the EU without being fully inspected for contamination or signs of disease after slaughter, The Bureau can reveal, in a move some experts say could put consumers at increased risk from food poisoning bugs.
New proposals being considered by the European Commission would see the relaxing of official hygiene rules that currently insist every poultry carcass is individually checked after being killed and before being released for public consumption.
Meat inspection bodies and consumer groups say such visual examinations are a vital tool for detecting faecal contamination, which can contain harmful bacteria, and indications of disease.
But EU officials argue that increased microbiological screening of poultry flocks, improved food chain information and “risk based” interventions are now more effective in preventing contaminated or sick birds from reaching consumers than post-mortem inspections of individual birds.
They also point out that only meat plants that can demonstrate a history of compliance with food safety rules will be allowed to reduce inspection ratios under the new measures being considered.
The row centres around reducing the high levels of some food-borne illnesses across the EU. Campylobacter is Europe’s biggest cause of food poisoning, with up to 9 million cases estimated to occur annually, although most are not reported. Rates of the disease - which can prove fatal - are known to be rising, with high levels found in chicken meat.
Ron Spellman, deputy secretary general of the European Association of Food and Meat Inspectors (EWFC), said the EU proposals, if approved, would lead to an increase in the “already unacceptable” volume of food poisoning cases.
“Poultry causes a high level of human food poisoning due to its contamination with campylobacter and to a lesser extent, salmonella bacteria. These organisms are carried in the intestines of the birds which, during processing in the slaughterhouse, are sometimes ruptured causing the spread of visible faecal material onto the carcasses.”
He said the current system of individual carcass inspections “enabled contamination to be seen, and in cases of heavy contamination the carcass will be removed from the production line.”
Professor Chris Elliott, a food safety expert who led the official inquiry into the horse meat scandal, told the Bureau he was concerned the proposed measures “will only serve to lessen the degree of scrutiny at poultry plants and will thus mean a higher risk of meat not fit for human consumption entering the food chain. The objective is clearly to reduce costs.”
Professor Hugh Pennington, who investigated fatal e.coli outbreaks in the UK, disagreed however, and said he had “always been unconvinced that visual inspection in itself brings significant food safety benefits.”
“The current inspection regime still leaves campylobacter contamination of poultry at very high levels, so what is it delivering? Big salmonella reductions were due to things like immunisation [on farms], not more inspection,” he said.
The new proposals - which are being discussed as part of a raft of amendments to new EU food safety rules due to be rolled out next year - would allow meat processors to reduce the number of post-mortem checks on birds and instead inspect only "a representative sample" from each flock being slaughtered.
At present, legislation stipulates that “all birds are to undergo post mortem inspection” in addition to other checks.
But in documents drawn up by the EU’s Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed, officials propose that a “derogation” from current individual inspections could be approved if meat plants “have a system in place to the satisfaction of the official veterinarian that allows the detection and the separation of birds with abnormalities, contamination or defects”.
In order to reduce inspections, the documents state, the plant must also have a “longstanding history” of compliance with other food safety procedures. If “abnormalities” indicating a serious problem for human or animal health are found during earlier ante mortem inspections (when birds arrive at the abattoir) then all birds would still require checking.
The proposals follow a - disputed - 2012 European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) scientific opinion that proposed that “post-mortem visual inspection could be replaced by setting targets for the main hazards on the carcass, and by verification of the food business operator‟s hygiene management, using Process Hygiene Criteria.”
EU spokesperson Anca Paduraru told the Bureau: “The main hazards in poultry are salmonella and campylobacter. These pathogens will never be detected through the inspection of carcasses, but by bacteriological analysis [sampling]. This is why additional official controls for these two pathogens are now required in the proposed revision of the meat inspection [rules] with a view to strengthen the safety of poultry meat.
She said the proposals, which are understood to be voted on later this year following a consultation, were optional and that individual countries would be left to make a decision on whether to adopt them.
Paduraru also indicated that, in practice, meat plants may put in place their own inspection regimes even if the official food safety controls are relaxed: “Meat processors have an interest in slaughtering in the best possible way. Some may put in place quality assurance systems with that objective.”
But critics expressed alarm that the industry could be left to oversee key food safety checks.
“This looks like an attempt to bring back the delegation of post-mortem inspection tasks to poultry slaughterhouse staff through the backdoor, with reliance on abattoirs’ own checks,” Camille Perrin from EU consumers group BEUC said.
“Improved slaughter hygiene and a thorough visual inspection of all poultry are crucially needed if we are to ensure that no dirty meat reaches consumers’ plates.”
Professor Erik Millstone, from the University of Sussex, said: “The proposed change is an attempt to weaken EU-wide food safety enforcement rules. [It] says that the inspections will only be diminished for plants that have high standards and a good record but the un-inspected almost always deteriorates.... what is needed is higher standards not looser regulation or weaker enforcement.”
Some experts said however internal company checks combined with tough enforcement is the best approach: “[A system] where the inspectors inspect without notice to check a business to find out whether its own plan to deliver as safe a product as possible is being operated, and come down hard on deficiencies, is the way forward,” Professor Pennington said.
In the UK, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), which regulates the meat sector, confirmed it had been in discussions with the EU over the proposals and said it had provided comments on the proposed changes.
Asked if it could rule out adopting the new system a spokesperson said: “The UK will continue to comply with EU food and feed legislation while it remains a member of the EU. If any rule changes are considered after we leave, we will apply our usual rigorous risk assessment to those changes and ensure public safety remains at the heart of everything we do.
In 2015 the FSA undertook a trial involving eight poultry processing plants in which inspections of individual poultry carcasses were reduced in favour of other official controls.
Richard Griffiths, Chief Executive of the British Poultry Council, signalled his support for the proposals, describing them as “a positive step towards a more risk-based approach to meat inspection.”
“Visual inspection is important to help assess bird health and welfare issues, as well as problems that may occur with the slaughter process, but it provides a quality assurance role rather than public health benefit,” he said.
“The caveats mentioned in the draft proposal are crucial; no food business operator should be allowed to reduce controls without demonstrating consistent performance in managing their processes.”