© Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Experts have warned against cuts which would reduce the checks and inspections of meat used in food sold in supermarkets.
The scandal of horsemeat in supermarket burgers should be seen as a warning of things to come, say experts alarmed that meat producers are to be given more powers to police themselves.
Internal documents from the Food Standards Agency reveal that the UK is to move away from regular inspections of abattoirs to a "risk-based" system that unions representing meat-processing workers say will lead to a drop in standards. As a result, unions warn that abattoirs are the next food scandal waiting to happen. Major food producers have been pushing for slaughterhouses to be subjected to lighter regulation for many years, complaining that the number of inspections is stifling their business.
Unions said public revulsion over the burger scandal illustrated the need to do more to avoid contamination at all levels of the food chain, including where the animals were slaughtered. "The fact that horsemeat has unexpectedly turned up in burgers is not surprising; large parts of the industry will do what they think they can get away with," said Unison national officer Ian Adderley. "Currently things far worse than horsemeat are prevented from going into burgers because of the work of meat inspectors and vets in abattoirs. EU legislation ensures meat is physically inspected by people independent of the industry."
But Adderley said the situation was changing. "All meat going through abattoirs is checked; this stops contamination, abscesses and excrement from making it into the food chain. However, the EU wants to water down the system by removing physical inspection - a move that is, astonishingly, supported by the FSA. If we stop the physical inspection, who knows what will make it into burgers, but one thing is for sure - it'll be something far worse than horsemeat."
The ABP Food Group, one of Europe's biggest meat suppliers and processors, which supplied Tesco and several other supermarkets with the contaminated burgers, is being investigated by health and agriculture authorities in the UK and Ireland over the controversy. Two of its subsidiaries, Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, supplied burgers which contained traces of equine DNA to supermarkets, including one product sold in Tesco that was classed as 29% horsemeat.
It is thought the horsemeat came from the Netherlands and Spain and was used to "bulk up" the burgers. DNA testing is not routine in food production processes, suggesting that the FSA Ireland, which first tested the burgers, was acting on a tip-off. The FSAI analysed 27 beef burger products with "best before" dates from last June to March 2014, with 10 of the 27 products - 37% - testing positive for horse DNA and 85% testing positive for pig DNA. Ten million burgers have been taken off shelves as a result of the scandal.
Unions said the lack of testing in meat-processing plants should make the government rethink its plans to relax regimes at abattoirs.According to FSA minutes, EU member states are moving to a New Zealand-style inspection system for the slaughter and processing of cattle, sheep and goats. The intention is for the new regime to become more self-policing. An FSA briefing note explains that, under the new system, "food business operators (FBOs) would be given greater responsibility" while "trained plant staff were permitted to carry out some tasks at postmortem inspection".
Another internal memo, seen by the Observer, confirms that "more responsibility is taken by the FBO for food safety actions" while acknowledging that the FSA's "official role shifts from inspection to verification". Unions say the lack of testing is part of a wider move to "light-touch" regulation. There are plans to end BSE testing in cattle soon. A decision that will allow red meat to be treated with the decontamination agent lactic acid is also seen in some quarters as a weakening of hygiene regulations.
But the FSA played down the union's concerns. "The issue of horsemeat DNA being in burgers is an issue of food authenticity - food not being sold as what it says on the label, rather than being a food safety issue related to the checks that take place on the meat in abattoirs to assess their fitness for human consumption," a spokeswoman for the agency said.
"The current system of meat controls was designed around 100 years ago when diseases such as tuberculosis were more of a risk from diseased cattle and their unpasteurised milk," the spokeswoman saidAnimal rights groups have used the row to push for compulsory CCTV in abattoirs, saying that the industry cannot be trusted to police itself. The proposal has been rejected by the government. The groups say the cameras would allow for more stringent monitoring. Animal Aid, which campaigns against factory farming, conducted a series of undercover investigations into nine randomly chosen UK slaughterhouses which it claimed "proved" that the industry cannot be trusted to run its operations properly.
"In eight of the nine, we filmed breaches of welfare laws with animals being kicked, beaten, punched and burned with cigarettes, and the regulators apparently knew nothing about it," a spokeswoman said. "The discovery of horsemeat in beef burgers is no surprise at all. This industry needs stringent monitoring and tough enforcement, and we believe mandatory CCTV could help prevent some of these gross welfare and hygiene breaches."