14 March 1996

Crackdown on abattoirs after cover-up alleged…

By Tony McDougal

FARMERS and abattoirs are set to face tougher restrictions on livestock presentation and cleanliness amid fresh allegations this week that the government covered-up hygiene failings in UK slaughterhouses.

Prof Hugh Pennington, chair of the official enquiry into the E.coli O157 outbreak in Lanarkshire, stressed that faecal contamination on carcases was a major contributor to the spread of the disease and should be improved. Farmers needed to look closely at the way stock was housed and transported to abattoirs.

Prof Pennington hinted at a Scientists for Labour conference in London on Tuesday that his final report – expected at the beginning of April – would look to tighten regulations to prevent carcase contamination in slaughterhouses.

The Meat Hygiene Service has instigated a grading classification system, which demands abattoirs reject filthy animals and wash unacceptably dirty stock, but will also later this month launch a pictorial guide of stages of cattle cleanliness for slaughterhouses.

Farm minister Douglas Hogg said in a Commons statement on Wednesday that MHS staff will be given extra training in hygiene standards and that attendance by vets would be stepped up at plants with poor hygiene scores.

MAFF will also consult with industry over whether to publish an abattoir league table. The lowest rated slaughterhouse scored just 27 marks out of a possible 100.

Prof Penningtons comments followed last weeks disclosure that neither he, nor Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth, had received information about a Meat Hygiene Service report produced in 1996 which claimed slaughterhouses were breeding grounds for the E coli organism.

It was followed by publication of letters leaked to Labours shadow farm spokesman Gavin Strang, claiming meat hygiene inspectors were being encouraged to ignore breaches of regulations and threatened if they intervened.

Since its launch in April 1995, the MHS has produced case studies and given marks for every abattoir, referring 37 cases for potential prosecution over failed hygiene standards, though only seven have been successful.

Publication of the findings of enforcement activity will start in the near future, and abattoirs which fail to meet standards will have their licenses revoked.

MAFF has responded to Professor Penningtons interim report plea for more research, funding a three year Scottish Agricultural College study on factors influencing the production of e.coli organisms in cattle.

Barte Syng, SAC project director, said a case control study of herds which might be excreting e.coli would take place. It would involve monthly sampling of faeces, paying particular attention to calving, type of housing and feed.