Food Chain Filth -
French Toilets Fed
Directly Into Livestock
Feed Production
ByJon Ungoed-Thomas and Tony Allen-Mills
Surrounded by maize fields, the blue and white corrugated Caillaud plant in northern France looks innocuous enough. Last week, however, it emerged as a focal point for the mounting concern over European food production.
For at least six months at the cattle feed factory, excrement from staff toilets was plumbed into the production line. Between August 1998 and March this year, 15 to 20 tons of human and other sewage sludge was mixed each week into feed for chickens, pigs and sheep.
Workers revealed last week that blood from carcasses was also swept into the stinking swill. "Every time they clean the filters, the smell is so bad that it makes you want to vomit," said Bernard Guillard, a 52-year-old worker at the factory in Javené, Brittany.
The Caillaud plant is singled out in a French government report - obtained by The Sunday Times - which details a catalogue of breaches of health and safety standards in animal feed production in at least three other large plants in Brittany. As the French last week defiantly maintained their ban on British beef, it was this report that became the trigger for the row over cattle feed contaminated with human sewage.
Completed last April, it was followed up by European commission officials who sent three veterinary inspectors to the plant in August. When their report was published nine days ago, it prompted allegations of hypocrisy against France and reinforced British newspapers' calls for readers to boycott French products.
The French government, which said it had taken action to plug the breaches, concluded that its beef was still safe, but is it? And what other practices may be jeopardising the safety of our food?
VILLAGERS in the north Norfolk village of Saxthorpe are used to an unmistakable stink drifting from nearby Great Farm across the fields of grassland, sugar beet and potatoes. It is the smell of thousands of gallons of human sewage.
While many were shocked about revelations that human sewage had been added to French cattle feed, villagers who live close to Great Farm know that for years British cattle have been eating silage that has been cultivated on land laden with sewage.
Great Farm has three lagoons which are lined with black polythene and can each hold about a million gallons of sewage sludge. "It's like a dark porridge with a thick grey crust covering it," said Aubrey Poberefsky, 62, who lives in Saxthorpe. "It's full of bacteria and chemicals, but they have been putting thousands of gallons of it onto the fields. Even other farmers have been horrified."
Many consumers have been unaware that for years cows have been grazing and vegetables have been grown on land covered with human excrement. As with BSE, until the recent health scare most people have been unaware of the risks.
Sweden this month banned the use of all human sewage on arable land because of fears over the spread of bacteria and chemical contamination. However, Peter Seaman, who has 1,700 acres at Great Farm, defended its use. "This is an organic fertiliser and we have been injecting about 10,000 gallons an acre into the fields, usually in the autumn," he said. "When it's in the pits you have to stir it up so it's an even consistency, which can cause a smell."
Last year, more than 100,000 tons of raw sewage sludge were spread across British farmland. The pathogens - poisonous organisms - and parasites that can be found in untreated sewage include salmonella, E-coli 0157, viruses causing hepatitis, intestinal flukes (which cause digestive infection) and tapeworms. Toxic metals which are often detected in the sludge include lead, cadmium and mercury.
Chief microbiologists in Britain's supermarkets do not share Seaman's views on the use of untreated human waste on arable land. They are so worried that they have agreed new guidelines with the water companies and the National Farmers' Union to end the use of all raw sewage on farmland from January.
They will not, however, disallow "treated" human sewage sludge from being spread over animal feed crops. "Advanced-treated" sludge will be allowed for vegetables, salads and fruit.
Water companies heat the sewage to about 35C in the treatment process, but it does not kill all the pathogens (such as salmonella and E-coli 0157) and the toxic chemicals remain in the sludge. Even the advanced treatment, which raises the temperature of the sludge to 80C, is not guaranteed to kill all bacteria.
It means it is not just the French who are at risk of contaminating the human food chain. Hugh Pennington, professor of bacteriology at Aberdeen University, said: "The concern about the French was that they were feeding animals cattle feed [with human sewage] that potentially might contain bugs if it hadn't been heat-treated properly. There is a risk that it could happen in the fields in this country.
"If you put cattle onto a field too soon and they picked up salmonella from human effluent, you might have an epidemic of it in the cattle which could be passed on to people through meat contamination or milk contamination. I'm certain this has happened, but it's impossible to trace back to the source."
Farmers, who pay up to £1.50 per ton of sewage, use it as a cheap fertiliser which gives a flush of growth to their produce by enriching the soil with nitrogen and potash.
Sewage, however, can contaminate both livestock and produce because bacteria such as E-coli can live for more than 100 days in the soil. In fields in East Anglia treated with sewage, one test revealed 15 different traces of salmonella in six samples of soil.
The Soil Association, which certifies organic farmers, bans its use. It says sewage not only contains dangerous bacteria but also metals from industrial waste such as mercury. Instead, it recommends the use of animal manure which has been composted to kill the harmful bacteria.
"Sewage does have nutrients in it, but is unsafe unless handled carefully," said Pennington. "There are some viruses, such as polio virus, that you only get from human sewage and you will also get the food poisoning bugs."
The water companies argue that the risk of the human food chain becoming contaminated from human sewage is negligible and levels of metals and chemicals are carefully monitored. They say advanced treatment rids the sludge of more than 99.9% of pathogens.
Official figures, however, suggest we are at increasing risk from what we eat. There were 23,000 reported cases of salmonella poisoning last year compared with 10,251 in 1981. The Public Health Laboratory Service says the rise is not just explained by the public's increased willingness to report food poisoning.
Britain's farmers say they are not to blame. They cite figures showing that the number of salmonella cases in British cattle have more than halved from 2,025 in 1995 to 975. The number of salmonella cases in sheep, pigs and chickens have also fallen.
Farmers claim the figures form part of the growing evidence that British farming boasts among the toughest safety regulations to protect the public from BSE and food poisoning. It is that contention which has been crucial in the European Union scientists' decision to endorse the export of British beef.
Meat and bonemeal are banned from being put into any feed in Britain but can be used in other European countries in feed for pigs and chickens. The risk is that this feed could be fed to cattle, which could potentially pass on BSE.
In British abattoirs, the head, spleen, part of the intestine and spinal cord are all removed from slaughtered cattle and destroyed, because it is nervous tissue that is believed to pass on the human form of BSE. In other countries it is possible to buy a steak with part of the spine attached to it.
Britain also has a rigorous inspection and monitoring system. Ministry officials last year analysed nearly 20,000 samples of cattle feed to check for banned additives, such as bonemeal or sewage.
In France, it is alleged, similar food safety controls repeatedly failed, causing the scandal over human sewage in cattle feed.
As in Britain, the spreading of human sewage on fields has been a common practice in France. For years, village mayors have urged local farmers to perform a civic duty by taking sludge from the treatment plant and spreading it on their fields.
The sewage has a nominal price of £40 per hectare, but in reality it is the town that picks up the bill. However, the French farming union has now asked its members to stop using sewage waste because of concerns about the levels of harmful chemicals.
While Britain can rightly boast some of the best safety regulations in Europe, it is estimated that producers have to foot bills of more than £15m a year for the removal of risk material from cattle.
"They are saddled with extra costs which inevitably make it more difficult to compete," said a spokesman for the Meat and Livestock Commission.
IT WAS not just the throng of journalists who were on tenterhooks awaiting the EU scientists' verdict on the safety of British beef last week. European commissioners were acutely aware that the wrong result could undermine Tony Blair's "European project".
The unanimous decision giving British beef a clean bill of health marked the climax of what has become an acutely embarrassing episode for the French.
By supporting the ban on it, French ministers had put their own food industry under the spotlight. Supermarket customers - most of whom are urban dwellers who are far removed from the reality of mass meat production - were shocked by the disclosure over cattle feed contaminated with sewage.
Consumers in France now have to be convinced by their government that whatever is wrong with their own food, British beef is safe. Early indications are that it is not going to be an easy task.
Professor Jeanne Brugere-Picoux, a member of the French food agency scientific subcommittee which originally recommended that the British beef ban should not be lifted, last week said she stood by her decision.
"Perhaps the European committee is not quite so specialised on this issue as some of us," she said. "It's very difficult to give an opinion on a health issue so complex if you are not familiar with the matter.
" I see no reason to change my mind."
Additional reporting: Will Peakin and Alastair Miller in France, Stephen Bevan and Dipesh Gadher