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The British horsemeat scandal: could it happen again?

Cuts to meat inspector jobs mean we can no longer guarantee the food we eat is safe. PETER LAZENBY reports

This year's scandal of horsemeat being secretly introduced to Britain's food chain centred on a meat-cutting warehouse at Todmorden in West Yorkshire.

But it is just the latest in a string of problems in the industry - and union activists are warning that worse is probably to come.

Meat inspectors employed by the government's Food Standards Agency have the job of monitoring the quality of the nation's food - particularly meat, which can be a source of food poisoning and disease.

There used to be 1,500 of them. Now, thanks to government cutbacks and privatisation, there are around 650.

Hundreds of inspectors have been axed, even though their work remained to be done.

Their union Unison is fighting the reductions.

But now much of the work is is undertaken by private contractors, who employ poorly qualified and low-paid staff to maximise profits.

Industry insiders say it is no coincidence that the meat industry has been hit by disasters, including outbreaks of BSE and E coli infections.

The government has restricted the powers of meat inspectors, putting more responsibility for hygiene and safety on the processing companies whose motivation is profit.

The details are horrifying. An insider said: "Meat inspectors used to be able to inspect carcasses and remove problems such as tumours, abscesses. Now they're not allowed to do that.

"The government is trying to get rid of the pathological side of the job, so things like tumours and abscesses will find their way into sausages, burgers.

"If food inspectors are not looking after the pathology there will be carcasses going into the food chain with abscesses, tumours, septicaemia. When you put this stuff into mince, nobody is going to know what the hell is in there."

Concerns over deregulation of the meat industry led to an early day motion in the House of Commons.

It stated: "This house notes that the horsemeat scandal is only the latest in a long line of meat crises to affect UK consumers over the last 20 years; further notes that the terrible E coli outbreaks in Wishaw and Bridgend showed conclusively that strong government regulation of the meat industry is necessary to protect public health; is deeply concerned that, instead of recognising this, the UK Food Standards Agency has consistently supported a policy of deregulation of the European meat hygiene regulations; and calls on the government to review Food Standards Agency policy in this area to ensure that consumer safety is the main driver of the UK's policy on the future of meat inspection at a European and domestic level."

Parliament was told that the removal of independent government inspectors from meat-cutting plants was seen as "a green light to some in the meat industry to start substituting cheap horsemeat for beef.

"The horsemeat scandal shows clearly that the Food Standards Agency should put consumer safety and animal welfare before the deregulatory demands of the meat industry."

The motion made six demands on the Food Standards Agency:

Abandon its "light-touch" approach to official inspection of meat producers
Stop lobbying the European Commission to loosen regulations on the meat industry
Reinstate daily inspection of meat-cutting plants by government inspectors
Resume official control over the cleanliness of animals at abattoirs
Stop cuts to the Food Standards Agency inspection workforce
Bring back in-house all contracted veterinary and meat inspection services in Britain.

Unison has been to the fore in supporting demands for more effective regulation.

In February Unison local government national officer Ben Priestley wrote to Food Standards Agency chairman Jeff Rooker: "The ongoing scandal of meat industry fraud and criminal activity in relation to horsemeat is only the latest in a long line of meat crises.

"You have been closely involved throughout your political career in dealing with these crises - BSE, E coli and foot and mouth.

"On each occasion the government was forced to reasses its deregulatory policy on independent meat inspection, increase the resources of the Meat Hygiene Service and temporarily enforce stricter controls on the industry.

"It is a matter of grave concern to our members that the deregulatory policy of this and previous governments in relation to meat inspection still appears to be the default position."

So far Unison's concerns have fallen on deaf ears, as the government blindly pursues its policy of deregulation and privatisation.

One industry insider said the pattern - and resultant lowering of standards - could be identified throughout Britain's public services, including the National Health Service.

"The same principle applies," he said. "In the NHS cleaners were made redundant and contracted out, and standards forced down. If hygiene standards in hospitals had been higher, would we have had the MRSI outbreak? You cannot rely on private employers to keep standards up because profits come first. As a result people have died.

"The Food Standards Agency has cut staff down. We stopped inspecting meat-cutting plants. The horsemeat scandal broke out in Yorkshire - there should have been meat inspectors there. But the job is becoming more hands-off and private companies are in it for the profits."

Yorkshire Labour Euro MP Linda McAvan is pursuing the issue.

She said: "For the sake of consumers and their right to safe food, we do not want to rely on self-regulation by the food industry."


This article first appeared in Unison Active.


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