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Last Updated: Wednesday, 9 June, 2004, 09:31 GMT 10:31 UK
Good enough to eat?
The British food industry is a 16bn business but is the meat on your plate really good enough to eat? The Money Programme looks at the health of the British meat industry.

Two years ago, following major health scares over BSE and salmonella, the government transferred responsibility for food safety from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food to the new Food Standards Agency.

But has the change really cleaned up the act of the British food industry or is public health still being put at risk from unfit material getting out into the food chain?

Environmental health inspectors now have tough new targets to meet, making sure all food businesses are regularly checked.

Tough targets

Sharon Zammit and Shaheen Zar from Newham Borough Council are part of a team of ten inspectors responsible for checking 1,200 businesses in their area.

Zammit and Zar know there is unfit meat being sold in Newham. Their job is to track down the source and find out if the problem is being caused by carelessness or deliberate fraud.

In just one day they investigate four butchers, two lorries and one cutting plant, finding evidence of unfit meat, mis-description and unlicensed processing.

"These performance targets are very well intentioned," says Zar. "But when you have to juggle your resources in order to investigate a complicated case then those targets do suffer. We end up being criticised by the Food Standards Agency or our own auditors here."

David Statham, director of enforcement at the Food Standards Agency, claims it is vitally important for the agency to know what its inspectors are doing.

"Clearly that means they should be focusing on those areas that are the most important and if investigations of a serious nature are not getting done because of routine inspections then we've totally missed the point of the monitoring that we carry out."

Rotherham exposure

One of the biggest investigations into meat safety in Britain highlighted the task facing the agency. Inspectors in Rotherham uncovered a multi-million pound conspiracy to pass off pet food as meat for human consumption.

An anonymous tip off led the council and police to raid three units on a local industrial estate. Lewis Coates from Rotherham Borough Council says he was astonished by what he saw: "We found containers of turkey breasts and turkey thighs. The flesh had debris, faeces and feathers on it. The smell was so rank that one of my colleagues had to leave the building to retch outside."

Investigators uncovered evidence that meat from a pet food plant outside Newark was being washed in bleach and salt water to remove the slime and smell before being packaged up and sold through wholesalers and brokers all over the country - ending up in local butchers, supermarkets and schools.

The investigation lead to the conviction of five men for fraud; they received prison sentences of up to eight years each.

Dying for food

In a reaction to the Rotherham case, the Food Standards agency came up with a plan to prevent poultry waste getting into the food chain. It includes the dying of high-risk products like diseased meat but not low-risk poultry by-products like chicken feet and heads.

But some inspectors say the plan doesn't go far enough. Rotherham's Lewis Coates is one: "The acid test is would Rotherham's case have happened if high-risk material had been stained? The quite simple answer is, yes it would. It wouldn't have made a difference; the meat would still have come through."

The Food Standards Agency denies that it has watered down its plan in order to appease the pet food lobby and poultry industry.

Meanwhile environmental health inspectors Sharon Zammit and Shaheen Zar continue to fight a losing battle with the illegal meat dealers in Newham.

Zar says: "We can try our utmost and we do succeed from time to time but, given the criminal nature of the business and the opportunity to make lots of money, I think its going to remain with us for quite some time."

This programme was first transmitted on Wednesday 9 October 2002.




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