New Scandal - Failure Of Mad
Cow/BSE Tests Revealed
By James Meikle - Health Correspondent
Worried food standards chiefs last night admitted that meat has been passed as fit to eat while still containing potentially fatal material, despite tight controls designed to stop BSE-contaminated material going into food.
Cattle and sheep carcasses containing spinal cord have been found by government vets in spot checks on at least two abattoirs in the last year. Another case in Northern Ireland involving a cow is still under investigation.
Spinal cord, among the most potentially infective parts of cattle not displaying obvious signs of BSE, has also been found in carcasses imported from Ireland in the last year.
The food standards agency last night admitted that it was worried by the apparent lapses but insisted that investigations to date indicated that these were isolated incidents and that the carcasses had since been destroyed.
Staff are expected to be given new warnings over the importance of cast-iron procedures for inspecting carcasses because in the two proven cases the responsibility lay with a government meat inspector and a contract vet, rather than abattoir workers.
Before the latest lapses, no meat passed as healthy had been found with spinal cord since 1996, when the probable link between eating BSE-infected cattle and vCJD in humans was established. Similar anti-BSE measures now apply in sheep because of the theoretical risk they too could be infected.
The cases come to light just weeks before European commission vets inspect Britain's anti-BSE regime.
The Human BSE Foundation, representing the families of victims, 83 of whom have so far died in Britain, said the incidents showed there was no room for complacency.
Spokesman Malcolm Tibbert said: "I have always thought there was still scope for BSE-infected material to enter food and this goes to show that any attempt to let the industry regulate itself would be beyond belief."
The Consumers' Association said: "We have to find out whether these are isolated cases or evidence of a larger problem."
It was concerned that in some instances the abattoirs where the failures had been discovered had not been named, especially as consumers are regularly told by the food standards agency to check where food is coming from.
A food standards agency spokesman said last night: "We are worried. The meat hygiene service says the presence of any SRM (the risk materials) in healthy marked carcasses is viewed very seriously."
Failures by inspectors could be regarded as gross misconduct and lead to dismissal. "While there is no reason to suppose people are becoming more laissez-faire and could not care less anymore, these cases are a matter of concern."
The government argues that controls are now far better than in the mid-90s when horrified agriculture officials and Tory ministers discovered appalling lapses.
In January last year a member of the state veterinary service checking standards at a Manchester abattoir run by Cruisedeal Ltd found a piece of spinal cord more than two inches long hanging from a beef carcass. It had been marked fit for consumption by an inspector working for the meat hygiene service, then answerable to the agriculture department but now to the food standards agency.
The inspector was suspended pending inquiries but the investigation team found "mitigating circumstances" at the plant at the time and he was allowed to return to work at another plant after a formal caution.
The abattoir later lost its licence for other hygiene failings.
In Northern Ireland there have been five breaches of anti-BSE controls in meat imported from Ireland, prompting stiff exchanges with Dublin.
But in another case in September, vets working for the Northern Ireland executive found spinal cord in a meat plant. All the carcasses were destroyed.
Officials there insist the cases are not evidence of a larger on-going problem but will not give further details while investigations continue.
Last month checks by government vets at a Devon abattoir found remains of spinal cord in a sheep carcass.
The contract vet involved is likely to be allowed to return to similar work. He appears to have missed the sheep out when returning to the inspection line after being called away.
The food standards agency has insisted that procedures are changed to ensure such a mistake does not happen again.
It is not identifying the plant "because it is the meat hygiene service at fault, rather than the abattoir owner".
This Site Served by TheHostPros