Scrapping meat inspectors could have deadly consequences says UNISON report

UK consumers face a heightened risk of food poisoning from chicken purchased in supermarkets and restaurants, if the European Commission pushes ahead with plans to remove independent meat inspectors from slaughterhouses across the EU, UNISON is warning today (Sunday).

A new UNISON report containing detailed analysis of food inspections on poultry slaughterhouses across Europe, has revealed a catalogue of failings to comply with existing EU standards.

The report suggests that many slaughterhouses are already incapable of ensuring that the meat on our plates is free from faeces, diseases, abscesses and septicaemia.

The UNISON-commissioned research examined the audits of inspections carried out at 72 poultry slaughterhouses between 2010 and 2014 by the European Commission’s Food and Veterinary Office, in countries including Italy, France, Romania and Estonia.

The research uncovered widespread cases of chicken meat with faecal contamination, mainly as a result of carcasses being sprayed with water on production lines – causing contaminates to spread over a wide area to other meat, as well as to surfaces and equipment.

This cross-contamination spreads dangerous bacteria such as campylobacter – the major cause of food poisoning in Britain.

According to the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the body responsible for food safety in the UK, two-thirds of chicken sold in the UK (65 per cent) is contaminated with campylobacter, with at least 280,000 cases in the UK each year. In 2014, it caused 110 deaths.

Guidance issued to slaughterhouses in England and Wales by the FSA advises them not to ‘wash raw chicken’ as ‘splashing waterfrom washing chicken can spread campylobacter’.

EU law currently allows officially trained slaughterhouse staff – known as poultry inspection assistants – to carry out inspections, but only if they have the necessary qualifications required by EU legislation. While some European countries use these types of inspectors, others claim to use official vets.

However, the audits revealed that instead of conducting the inspections themselves, some vets used slaughterhouse staff who had not received proper supervision or training. This suggests that beyond the official inspections conducted by vets, there are probably no inspections taking place at all, says UNISON.

Despite much evidence to the contrary, the European Commission is set to reject recommendations from an elected MEP committee to keep independent inspections in EU regulations. This would result in no independent meat inspectors being employed across the EU to examine the safety of white or red meat.

Commenting on the report, UNISON General Secretary Dave Prentis said:  “Many slaughterhouses across Europe are already failing to abide by official standards designed to protect public health. Removing inspections altogether could have deadly consequences for consumers, as the meat from chicken is found in many pies, pastries andother products on sale across the UK.

“The people inspecting the meat we eat should be independent of the slaughterhouse owner who benefits financially from sending as many birds as possible into the human food chain.

“These threatened EU changes mean they will effectively be allowed to mark their own homework. We cannot allow these meat producers to be the judge and jury of what we eat. Any change risks higher rates of contaminated chicken landing on our dinner plates, with horrid, and even deadly, consequences for consumers.”

Notes to editors

UNISON represents around 600 FSA staff.

In UNISON’s recent public attitude survey conducted by COMRES, three-quarters (75 per cent) of the British public said that meat inspection should remain the responsibility of the government. Eighty-six per cent said that slaughterhouses should be required to have their food safety and quality standards independently assessed by external, government inspectors.

The research was carried out for UNISON by Empech Research.

The report is available from the UNISON press office on 0207 121 5555