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Friday, 29 October, 1999, 14:06 GMT
Q&A: How safe is our meat?

As polemics fly about British beef and French farmers' use of feedstuffs containing waste matter, BBC environment correspondents Robert Pigott and Alex Kirby look at the health issues behind the war of words

Isn't the news that French farmers have used human waste in livestock feed just another media food scare, or should we be worried?

We should be concerned about evidence that human sewage is being allowed into animal food, but we need also to be aware that the way the feed is produced makes the bacteria contained in sewage harmless.

Animal feed is heat-treated as it is made into pellets, and the heat kills bacteria like salmonella and e-coli.

However, scientists like Professor Philip Thomas, who is a UK government adviser, have been pointing out that it is foolish to rely on a heat treatment system for our safety.

The prion protein which causes BSE ("mad cow disease"), for example, can withstand very high temperatures.

And there may be other contaminants - like chemicals and heavy metals - which cooking and sterilising would not eliminate.

Using waste is risky, which is the main reason why the United Kingdom abandoned the practice 20 or 25 years ago: it was thought consumers would be appalled if they knew it was happening.

Is the practice legal?

It is illegal throughout the European Union to put human sewage into animal feed.

Food Row Fears
The European Commission, which carried out the investigation into French animal carcass recycling plants has given France two weeks to make sure the practice stops.

The French would probably say what they are doing is legal, though: they admit that using waste is against EU law, but say once the waste has been treated to make it suitable for use in animal feed it is no longer waste but a different, innocuous and useful product, whose use is legal.

Is the practice widespread among farmers generally?

Farmers have not been directly accused of using sewage in feed.

The inquiry affects plants which dispose of those parts of animal carcasses which are not used for human food.

It is quite legal in France for meat and bonemeal from this recycling process to be used as an ingredient in food for pigs and poultry, although in France - as elsewhere in the European Union - meat and bonemeal deriving from cattle is now prohibited as a food for cattle, for fear of spreading BSE.

What does it say about modern farming methods - aren't such practices bound to be bad for us and for the environment?

It would be hard to justify the use of human or any other form of sewage in feed. Nick Brown, the UK Agriculture Minister, probably spoke for nearly everyone when he described it as "horrible and disgusting".

Animal dung is very beneficial for farmland. Spreading manure has long been a way of returning nutrients to the soil.

But it is widely agreed that using it as an ingredient in animal food is running an unnecessary risk.

Should we all become vegetarian?

Leaving aside the reasons why some people become vegetarian (including the warning from doctors that animal fat is generally bad for us), there is no reason to see meat as instrinsically harmful to health.

It is also worth bearing in mind that even if animals ate untreated sewage and were contaminated by bugs like salmonella and e-coli, cooking the meat properly would kill them off and prevent the meat making us ill.

Becoming vegetarian would obviously cut out all risk from BSE or other contaminated meat, but you could still face some risks from fruit and vegetables.

Apples and carrots are just two crops where pesticide concentrations have been known to exceed recommended levels, and where official advice is to peel them before eating them.

Cheese can give you listeria.

However, the less meat we eat, the more grain is available for feeding hungry people, not food animals, and this is an argument that will become more compelling in a more crowded world.

What can we do as consumers to be confident about the quality of the food eat?

Grow it ourselves is probably the simplest answer. But not everyone can do that.

Organic food - grown without the use of chemicals - is probably as near to "natural" food as we can hope to find.

It is expensive, though as more people turn to it, the price will come down.

One thing you can do to be confident of the safety of meat is to cook it.

The potentially harmful bacteria which might contaminate meat are killed if they are subjected to a heat of about 70 degrees centigrade for a few minutes, and cooking bacteria will kill them very quickly.

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See also:
03 Nov 99 |  UK
UK and France - the official story
27 Oct 99 |  UK
Beef row 'hits consumers'

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