About 10 per cent of British meat cutting plants, or 47 out of 465, are not following theregulations on bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), according to a survey by the country's food regulator.
The breeches of law means that some illegal animal parts, those with material from the spinalcord deemed to be risky, has ended up in the food chain, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) said inreleasing the survey results.
The survey indicates that a significant segment of the industry is not taking the properprecautions to ensure beef parts judged to be of high BSE risk do not end up in the food chain. TheEU's 10-year-old ban on UK beef exports came to an end earlier this year on the condition that theUK maintain strict safety controls in place.
The survey of all beef processing plants in the UK was launched after the FSA discovered in July that a cutting plant hadsent meat to a rendering plant that included bovine vertebral column specified risk material (SRM) fromcarcasses of cattle aged between 24 months to 30 months. Tallow and pet food containing some of themeat was exported, resulting in a EU-wide alert.
More recently, in November, Dunbia in Northern Ireland had to issue a recall thousands of cuts of meat products after finding that a cow over the age of thirty months has entered the food chain without being tested forBSE. The incident occurred because of human error when a 54-month-old cow was wrongly identified as being less than 30 months old.
In the UK all cattle aged over 30 months must be tested for BSE and found to be negative beforethey can be slaughtered for human consumption. Vertebral column from carcasses of cattle aged over 24 months has to beremoved, stained and disposed of as Category 1 animal by-product (ABP)
under the UK's legal requirements.
For cattle aged over 30 months at slaughter, the SRM VC must be removed at a cutting plant that has been specificallyauthorised for removal of over 30-month SRM VC.
The FSA surveyed a total of 465 red meat cutting plants handling beef in Great Britain and 24 inNorthern Ireland. The FSA did not find any plants in Northern Ireland to be in breach of therules.
The regulator found 90 per cent of plants in Great Britain were compliant with the law. About 10per cent , or 47, were found to have " probable non-compliance" as there was insufficient evidence to be certain thatthe SRM has been correctly handled, the FSA stated.
About 57 per cent of the non-compliant plants seem to have allowed meat from 24-30 month cattleto be sold on without removal of the vertebral column (VC) from the carcass.
"Some 24- 30 month VC SRM has entered the domestic food chain," the FSAconcluded. " Domestic butchers may have been receiving 24-30 month VC SRM but not removing anddisposing of it correctly. There was no evidence of illegal export of meat containing 24-30 month VCSRM."
The FSA found evidence that a " very small amount" of 24-30 month VC SRM had been rendered at a rendering plant. Allmeat and bone meal from the affected plant had been incinerated and tallow went mainly into production ofoleochemicals, the regulator stated. The cutting plant, which was the source of this material, hassince amended its procedures, the FSA stated.
Another 9 per cent of the non-compliant plants failed to stain SRM, while another 2 per cent useda an incorrect stain. Other plants failed to correctly categorise SRM VC material before shipping,or sent them to abattoirs that were not approved as intermediate plants.
The FSA said it has taken enforcement action against the non-compliant plants. The measuresincluded a number of follow-up visits. All non-compliant companies were issued with either a verbal or written warning, which if not complied with couldresult in prosecution.
The survey was conducted by official veterinarians, who visited all cutting plants that process beef to establish thelevel of compliance with the rules relating to the handling of vertebral columns from carcasses of 24-30 month cattle.The visits were completed in September.
The UK's BSE regulations are contained in three pieces of law -- Regulation (EC) No. 999/2001, the Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (No. 2) Regulations2006, and the Beef Bone Regulations 1997.
Following the lifting of the ban on export of beef the UK was required to harmonise its controlson SRMs with those in other member states. The change meant that bovine vertebral column fromanimals over 24 months was classified as SRM from 2 May.
Previously processors only had to remove SRM from animals over 30 months of age at slaughter.
Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK were allowed to ship beef to the rest of the EU marketwhen the bloc lifted a 10-year-old ban earlier in 2006. Only live cattle born after 1 August, 1996can be exported along with beef from cattle slaughtered after 15 June 2005. The EU has maintained aban on UK for beef containing vertebral material and for beef sold on the bone.
As part of the precautions the UK implemented a new BSE testing system, which took effect on 7November 2005, replacing the over-thirty-months rule, which had operated as a blanket ban on thesale for human consumption of meat derived from cattle aged over 30 months at slaughter.
Before the BSE crisis in 1986, the UK's beef exports were worth about £1bn (€1.5bn) comparedto £20m (€29m) in 2004, according to Food from Britain, a consultancy.
The ban on the export of UK beef was issued in March 1996, due to the high incidence of BSE casesin the UK at the time. In 1999, the ban was amended to allow de-boned beef and beef products fromthe UK produced under the date-based export scheme (DBES) to be exported.
The European Commission recommended removal of the embargo last year on the basis that the UK hasfulfilled the conditions laid down in its July 2005 plan to ease controls throughout the bloc as BSEcases fall.
Brain-wasting BSE, popularly known as mad cow disease, can spread to humans. About 150 people inthe EU fell victim to the human form of BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, after eating meat frominfected cattle.