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Thursday, 9 August, 2001, 16:03 GMT 17:03 UK
What is mechanically recovered meat?
Inspections of beef
Meat is now subjected to tough inspections
No-one yet knows how many consumers ate meat infected with BSE in the 1980s.

But as investigations continue into how potentially contaminated produce entered the food chain, so-called 'mechanically recovered meat' (MRM) is believed to carry the most risk of being infected.

Humans are thought to develop the fatal brain disease variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease after eating meat from cows infected with BSE.


It is being used because it is so blinking cheap

David Walker
Trading standards officer
Only when it is known how widely low grade meat, or MRM, was used by the food industry, can the possible risk to humans of eating meat from cows infected with BSE be predicted.

Consumers are widely believed to have eaten meat pies, sausages and economy burgers which included mechanically recovered meat in the 1980s and 1990s.

But the full extent of how much MRM was used in food has yet to be determined.

The meat industry stands accused by a government committee of not being open enough about how much "mechanically recovered meat" (MRM) was used in the past.

It says that this is not the case but that often records were not kept of the extent that MRM was used.

MRM is meat residue which is left on the carcass after all the prime cuts have been removed.

It is pressure-blasted off the bones by machinery and forms a reddish slurry which resembles mince.

Some companies then use it to bulk up their meat products.

Experts say it is likely that bits of spinal cord - the part of a cow most likely to be contaminated with BSE - could be found in mechanically recovered meat.

Cheap meat

One trading standards chief, who has investigated the use of MRM, is in no doubts as to the reason for its use.

John Gummer, then Agriculture Minister, with his daughter Cordelia eating burgers in 1990
John Gummer said British beef was perfectly safe at the height of the BSE crisis
MRM can be 10 times cheaper than other meat, according to David Walker, chief trading standards officer in Shropshire.

"It is simply and solely used because of the price of the product," he said.

In 1994 he took action against a firm for failing to declare that one of its products contained MRM.

He told the BBC Radio 4's Today programme that, in one investigation, they found that while a piece of flesh cost 3.30 per kg, MRM cost just 37p a kg.

"It is being used because it is so blinking cheap."

Experts believe that some MRM went into school dinners but again the extent of this is not yet known.

Mr Walker said he had evidence that one national manufacturer had supplied MRM to his authority to be used for feeding school children.

Fresh investigation

But last year's report by the BSE inquiry heard that in the 1980s research into the MRM process was heralded as one of the great food technology drives of the time.

However, following concern about the rise of BSE in cattle, tighter regulations were introduced in 1989 to ensure that bovine offal including the spinal cord was not available for human consumption.

In the last five years the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) has been asking food companies how much "mechanically recovered meat" (MRM) was used.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) is hoping to find some fresh answers as it launches a new attempt to extract information from the industry about how widely MRM was used in the 1970s and the 1980s.

This month it will ask people who worked in the food industry as long ago as 20 years ago to tell them about practices.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Pallab Ghosh
"The investigation will begin later this month"
Food safety expert Professor Tim Lang
"MRM is a symbol of the cheap food policy"

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See also:

09 Aug 01 | Health
Meat industry attacked over CJD
20 Oct 00 | Health
vCJD and BSE - the link
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