British Farmers Spreading
Thousands Of Tons Human
Sewage On Food Crops
By Jon Ungoed-Thomas and Stephen Grey
British farmers are spreading thousands of tons of human sewage on arable and grazing land, risking the contamination of food with bacteria and toxic metals, an investigation has revealed.
Scientists warned last week that there was a danger the sewage could be consumed by cattle and enter the food chain. The sludge contains salmonella, E-coli, lead and mercury.
Evidence of the practice, which last year involved the use of more than 100,000 tons of raw human sewage, emerged as the government faced a new front in the beef war with Europe.
Despite Friday's ruling by the European scientific steering committee in Brussels that British beef was safe for export, German ministers threatened yesterday to defy the ruling, while one of France's most senior veterinary scientists said she still supported a ban.
Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, said the government would keep up diplomatic pressure to ensure that British beef was exported to all of Europe.
The latest revelations that British farmers have been using human sewage as a cheap alternative to fertiliser look certain to provoke demands for new controls on safety.
Swedish farmers earlier this month banned the use of human sewage sludge on arable land after concern about industrial chemicals in the sewage and the risk of bacteria entering the food chain. British organic farmers are already prohibited from using human sewage.
Gunner Lindgren, a chemist with the Swedish Consumers Corporation, said: "It should immediately be stopped across Europe and all sewage should be incinerated."
Hugh Pennington, professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, confirmed last week there was a risk of human sewage spreading across farmland and infecting produce. "Evidence suggests E-coli 0157 can survive for 100 days or more in the soil," he said.
Supermarkets have reached agreement with the water companies that the practice will end in January; but treated sewage sludge, heated to 35C, will still be used on grazing land and maize grown for silage.
Norman Low, a waste recycling expert for Water UK, the association that represents British water companies, said treated sewage sludge posed a minimal risk to the food chain. The amount of metals in the sludge was significantly below recommended safety levels: "More than 99.9% of pathogens are killed by treatment and existing research indicates these processes don't cause a risk."
While the government was bracing itself for calls for tighter controls on the use of sewage, more bad news from Europe threatened to dampen celebrations over Friday's beef ruling. At least three of Germany's federal states - Bavaria, Rhineland-Westphalia and Rhineland-Pfalz - said yesterday they would vote against British beef imports. "We have not changed our view that British meat should stay out of Germany," said Barbara Stamm, the Bavarian health minister.
Under German law, the final decision on lifiting the ban is taken by the Bundesrat, the upper house of parliament which represents the states. The government in Berlin admitted it faced a struggle to get the measure through.
Professor Jeanne Brugere-Picoux, head of the animal pathology unit at the national veterinary college in Paris, which recommended the French ban, said yesterday she stuck by her decision and claimed that members of the Brussels committee that decided in Britain's favour lacked the necessary expertise.
David Byrne, the European health and food commissioner, said he was optimistic that the ban would be lifted but acknowledged it was a longer process in Germany. He revealed that the commission was pressing ahead with proposals to create common standards for food.
France and Germany now face the threat of legal action if they refuse to allow in British beef. Government sources said France was in no position to make any demands: "We have an overwhelming legal, scientific and moral case. We will not be compromising."
Additional reporting: Michael Woodhead, Frankfurt, Jonathon Carr-Brown