Just about everyone has had some fun in the last week over the horsemeat burgers scandal – “Tesco's burgers, a mane part of a stable diet”, is just one of my favorites. Eating horsemeat in itself may be ‘neigh’ problem, as Christine Jardine argues in today’s Scotsman, but it does raise wider concerns about meat inspection.
With all the focus on horsemeat it has missed most people that the tests also showed that 89% samples had pig meat in them. This is clearly a serious cultural and religious issue for some communities in Scotland and for the rest of us who expect a beefburger to be precisely that. UNISON has previously identified similar concerns over chickens. Ever wondered why some cheap chicken fillets look and taste spongy? It is likely to be that they have been injected with water and pig protein to bulk them up. Check the packet to see what percentage of the chicken is actually chicken next time you buy, or ask the question in the restaurant or carry out.
Proper investment in trading standards and meat hygiene services could have meant the horsemeat burger scandal was picked up in the UK rather than relying on the Irish authorities. However, since 2000 EU officials have tried to push responsibility for abattoir hygiene onto meat plants and to reduce the role of independent meat inspectors, or even transfer their duties under some circumstances to the meat plants themselves. The UK government with its deregulation agenda has also taken hands off approach to meat inspection. Added to which cuts to these vital services are severely limiting the ability of hard-working trading standards officers and meat inspectors to protect the public.
This is now a problem we need to face up to following the announcement last year that Scotland is to have its own food standards body. Something we welcomed in principle but I cautioned that;
“Any change to the delivery module of meat inspection in Scotland should ensure it is protecting the public, not serving industry, therefore we must ensure this is not used as a backdoor to privatisation.”
Scotland has rising levels of E-Coli and our own tragic example of the consequences in the Wishaw outbreak that killed five people. There are over 3,000 reported cases of food poisoning in Scotland every year, although the true figure is thought to be much more as only ten percent of people visit their doctor when they suffer the symptoms. For most of us it can be an unpleasant experience with a day or two off work. However, for vulnerable groups it can be much more serious.
The real danger in this case is the quality and wholesomeness of meat in abattoirs. We need to avoid disease and contamination, and things like excrement making it into our food. This danger is avoided in Scotland by the work of meat inspectors and vets in abattoirs.
Another issue that arises out of the horseburger scandal is food labeling. This is one of the many issues overseen by trading standards officers, yet services across Scotland have reduced as council budgets have dwindled. Trading standards officers work hard to ensure that products pose no risk to consumers, but as their budgets are slashed, their ability to identify problems, inspect premises and prosecute wrongdoers has become severely limited. There are similar issues with Environmental Health staff who are responsible for inspecting food premises.
The public deserve to have confidence in the products they buy; this confidence comes from trading standards services having the resources to check the labeling products and pick up offences early, and from the work of meat inspectors and vets in abattoirs. The issue with horsemeat burgers is yet another example of why the industry should not regulate itself. It is vital that we continue the independent physical inspection of meat in Scotland.