The move follows a decision by the EU Commission late last week to effectively shut down Bowland Dairy Products – a Lancashire-based curd cheese manufacturer – for what Brussels described as “persistent non-compliance” with EU food safety laws.
Problems with Bowland were first reported in June, following an inspection by the commission’s Food and Veterinary Office.
“There was evidence that raw milk containing antibiotic residues, or contaminated with substances such as detergents and dyes, was being used to make curd cheese, as was out-of-date milk collected from retail establishments,” said a statement.
“Bowland was also using mouldy and contaminated cheese, including floor waste, to vacuum-pack for sale.” The commission says it alerted the UK authorities and demanded they immediately address the problems.
But a follow-up visit in September found continued non-compliance, leading to the decision to ban the company’s product from the market.
The UK Food Standards Agency insists it took a number of corrective measures at Bowland after the first FVO inspection. It suggests the continued perceived failings boil down to a difference of opinion between the UK and EU over the science behind antibiotic testing.
Dairy UK technical director Ed Komorowski said he was particularly concerned that the commission had stepped in and closed the dairy down without giving the company the right to defend itself in a court, as would happen under UK law.
Bowland director John Wright said his company had been “the unfortunate victim” of the dispute between the UK and EU authorities. “Bowland refutes the commission’s allegations and will be challenging this decision in the European court.”
But the dispute could soon escalate. The commission has warned that an FVO inspection of the entire UK dairy sector will take place in November.
“If evidence is found of similar practices elsewhere in the UK, the commission will take further action.”
It is already considering fining the UK government for its lack of action over the Bowland case and says the current product ban will stay in place until the FSA has changed its procedures for antibiotic testing.
NFU milk adviser Tom Hind said the EU Commission was seriously over-reacting, since Bowland was operating in line with UK food safety regulations, which were of the highest standards.
ANTIBIOTICS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The spat between the UK and the EU over antibiotics revolves around the retesting of bulk milk should it fail an initial “rapid” test at the dairy.
Bowland was taking this milk and then subjecting it to a three-hour “confirmatory” test. If this showed the milk was actually within acceptable thresholds, then it could be used for cheesemaking.
But the EU Commission says the three-hour test is inadequate and wants the UK to implement a “chemical quantifiable test”. This takes three weeks to confirm the level of antibiotics. This is clearly totally impractical, leaving dairies with no choice but to reject all milk that fails an initial rapid test. This milk then has to be incinerated – a costly and often unnecessary operation.