French Farmers Have
Fed Sludge And Human
Excrement To Livestock
For Years
By Martin Fletcher, Valerie Elliott and Philip Webster
The food war between Britain and France escalated last night with a disclosure that French farmers had fed livestock with sewage sludge including animal parts and human excrement for years.
A report from the European Commission denounced the French conduct as unacceptable, and said that the authorities had failed to take any action against those responsible or to recover the potentially contaminated feedstuffs. It gave Paris just 15 days to produce an "action plan" for putting its house in order.
Britain was resisting calls for a ban on all French meat products even though industry and opposition spokesmen demanded firmer action and their immediate withdrawal from supermarkets. British producers, furious at the apparent hypocrisy of the continuing French ban on British beef, threatened to intensify the row by demanding retaliation. The effects on public health of human and animal waste entering the food chain could be enormous, causing serious food poisoning and increased resistance to antibiotics. Most of the animal feed is used for French pig and chicken production. According to latest trade figures, Britain imports 95,000 tonnes of chickens from France and many are sold fresh in supermarkets as well as being used for ready-made foods and pies. Britain also imports 24,700 tonnes of pork, but beef and lamb imports are small. They would also be used in imported pâtés, pies and ready-made meals.
Last night a number of supermarket chains made urgent checks with the Ministry of Agriculture on whether French meat and poultry products were safe to leave on shelves. The Government told the French that it would be in their interests to lift the beef ban swiftly. Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, told his French counterpart that he would "categorically" reject calls for a unilateral ban on French agricultural produce because "we play by the rules and we would hope that all our European partners would do the same". His unspoken message was clearly that a decision to lift the beef ban was required if France was to prevent a massive rejection of its produce in Britain. Tim Yeo, the Conservative agriculture spokesman, called on the Government to ban French meat and animal products. He condemned the "utter hypocrisy of the French Government".
European Commission officials found that plants producing animal feed included sewage sludge in the ingredients and added that it was "not fully clear" if or how the French authorities separated human waste beforehand. The report was the result of an "urgent mission" made by suspicious commission inspectors to France this summer. It reveals how animal feed plants have been recycling almost everything they can salvage from slaughterhouses, right down to the run-off that collects in septic tanks. That can include human and animal excrement, waste water used for cleaning and disinfecting lorries, motor oil and chemicals. At one point, French authorities were obliged to assure the inspectors that sludge from municipal sewage plants was never used. "Certain plants in the French rendering industry have used for years prohibited substances such as sludge from the biological treatment of the wastewater or water from septic tanks," the report says. Most waste was heat-treated to kill bacteria, but that process was unable to remove chemicals and heavy metals.
The report says that "no further action was taken by the competent authorities against the plants, even where companies had recycled clearly prohibited material". France claims that the processing plants have all now stopped recycling sewage sludge, but Paris is still arguing about how "sludge" should be defined.
Derek Armstrong, a veterinary scientist for the Meat and Livestock Commission, said that French products should be identified to check whether they came from plants mentioned in the report.