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Thursday, 21 December, 2000, 13:15 GMT
Protection from plough to plate
British mear
Top quality: Meat labelled with the British Farm standard logo
By BBC consumer affairs correspondent Nicola Carslaw

Throughout the UK enforcement officers police the trade in food, from plough to plate.

The industry argues it has never been more thoroughly vetted. But there is no doubt criminals could slip through the net.

The very nature of an illegal trade means it is hard to find out whether it is going on and to what extent.

But meat industry sources are certain it is growing. It is often unhygienic, and no-one knows the consequences for human health.

They believe that post-BSE, the burden placed on businesses through increased regulations coupled with European Union-wide food safety directives, is highly likely to be driving parts of the trade underground.

While it is hard to get away with illegal slaughter in the beef sector, it is relatively easy to to set up a hidden retail network, using remote farm buildings, for unlicensed slaughter of poultry, lamb and pigs, with a sophisticated distribution system that is international and hard to police.

'Fragmented policing'

A former environmental health officer and now an independent food safety advisor, Dr Richard North, says since a reorganisation of food law enforcement in the early 1990s, criminals can find it easy to beat the system.

He says the meat industry used to be policed on a local basis. Now he says it is too fragmented.

A multitude of agencies is involved - local authorities, the Meat Hygiene Service, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Food Standards Agency.

Dr North says: "There's confusion about who's responsible. There's limited communication between all the agencies. Often there are turf wars, leaving criminal elements to operate with some freedom."

The driving force behind these meat trade scams is greed.

'Tempting racket'

David Edwards runs an independent food industry consultancy that includes auditing the meat trade.

He explains the temptation to run a meat racket.

He says if you have meat or poultry that is discarded for human consumption, it can cost you to dispose of it.

Before 1996 a slaughterhouse could be paid 25 a tonne for its waste material to be rendered or to go into petfood.

But now, slaughterhouses have to pay out about 120 a tonne.

If a cow dies in a field, the farmer has to pay a knacker to take away the carcass - an unwanted financial burden if you are already strapped for cash.

The laws are very tight now, too, on what can go into pet food - it is only products from meat that has been passed as fit for human consumption.

Could it happen again?

So the temptation for the unscrupulous is to dress up bruised or otherwise unpalatable meat and pass it into the human food chain illegally.

So after this latest scandal revealed at Hull Crown Court, what is being done to ensure it can never happen again?

Lewis Coates, one of the investigating officers involved in the case, says poultry that is destined for pet food or deemed unfit for human consumption ought to be stained so there is no misunderstanding about its destination and no way it can be passed off as fit for the human food chain.

This is the case with red meat - but not poultry.

Mr Coates also says a national investigation unit ought to be set up to tackle exactly the sort of crime he and his colleagues have uncovered.

The Food Standards Agency says only that it is considering the proposals.

The advice to consumers is that dodgy meat may be in the human food chain - but not at reputable butchers and supermarkets.

So, if you see meat that is extraordinarily cheap and looks too good to be true, it probably is.

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14 Dec 00 | UK
Meat fraud pair guilty
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