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Last Updated: Thursday, 22 May, 2003, 08:37 GMT 09:37 UK
Six Forum: Is there beef in your chicken?
Six Forum, presented by Manisha Tank
Panorama reporter, Betsan Powys answered your questions in a forum for the BBC's Six O'clock News, presented by Manisha Tank.



Frozen chicken could contain undetectable remains of pigs and cows, the BBC's Panorama programme has discovered.

In a report to be shown on Thursday night, the programme tells how some Dutch suppliers routinely pump the meat full of water to make it weigh more - thereby increasing their profit.

But to keep the water in, they add extracts of beef and pork.

The Food Standards Agency is able to test chicken for bovine and pork DNA, but Panorama has discovered a company that claims it can break down this DNA to make it undetectable.

While the practice is not illegal, misleading or inaccurate labels are. It also raises the prospect that some people who do not eat beef or pork for religious reasons are eating it inadvertently.

How did the Panorama team discover the practice? What can be done to stop it? How can labelling be improved?


Transcript:


Manisha Tank:

Hello, welcome to the Six Forum with me, Manisha Tank. Could the chicken you've been eating for your late tea perhaps contain the remains of pigs and cows. The BBC's Panorama programme has discovered how some Dutch suppliers pump the meat full of water to make it weigh more. Why? It's good for profits. But to keep the water in, extracts of beef and pork are added. So what does this actually mean for you the consumer and who has been misleading whom if anyone actually has. Here to address your questions is Panorama's chief reporter, Betsan Powys.


Manisha Tank:

The first question is: is this a question of a health risk or a moral issue and does it apply to all chicken products? Let's just clear that up - part of that would have been the reason why Panorama went into this in the first place.


Betsan Powys:

Yes, that's right. We heard about this last year. It was a story in the UK about pork being found in chicken. In Ireland they have found beef in chicken. Then it took quite a while to work out where it had come from. What you were talking about was Dutch chicken - frozen Dutch chicken - so that is what this is all about. But there's an awful lot of it that comes into the country - half the frozen chicken we import comes in from Holland. So we are talking about a lot - over a thousand tons a week.

And what they found was that beef and pork had been put in there because that swells up the produce - the protein swells up and holds in water. So we started at that point. The Food Standards Agency says it's a matter of mislabelling - as long as they put hydrolysed protein on the label, then they're being honest. It's not illegal to beef and pork extract in chicken. But we thought it was worth digging a little deeper.


Manisha Tank:

So there's a great sense there that people should know what it is they're eating. But you mentioned the Dutch there. We have a question from Alison Patch in London: Can British chicken contain the extracts of beef or pork?
Again this is a question of labelling where you say a product actually comes from.


Betsan Powys:

And it depends what you mean by being a British chicken. What we're talking about is chicken that's probably reared in Thailand or Brazil, probably killed in Thailand or Brazil, then it is frozen and it comes over to mainland Europe - in this case into Holland. They then defrost it, they add the water - in some of these processing plants - not all of them of course want to be tarred by the same brush - but they add the proteins, they add the water, then it's refrozen and then it comes over to the UK.

Does that make it British chicken? It's processed in the UK possibly and if you look on some boxes quite carefully - and we have been very careful in looking at boxes - you quite often see the words, processed in the UK, but actually the original chicken could have come from a processing plant in Holland.


Manisha Tank:

Anon: What's new about this discovery? Haven't we known about beef extracts in chicken for a long time now?


Betsan Powys:

Good question - that's what we discovered on the way. We knew about the beef - actually the Food Standards Agency had said they haven't found any beef. They very much play down that part of the story. We had people on the shop floor, working in processing plants in Holland. We also had a cover company - Panorama set up a cover company - went to food trade fairs and that sort of thing, got in on the boardroom level as well. And our own tests have proved that yes, it's still going on.

But what's new and what we discovered on the way was that there is a protein manufacturer in Germany and a blender in Holland who offered to sell us protein - that they're been tampering with the DNA - they'd managed to - his term is to take off the DNA - and he tries to explain that if you can get the product down to a last single base pair, the scientists, the food watchdogs and regulators, won't be able to find it in the chicken. So the matter with it being a labelling question would be out the window - if you're not going to know it's there, then clearly your not going to have to put it on a label and the implication of there being a disguised bovine product out there, we would have thought could be quite frightening. Nobody is saying that he is using bovine material that he shouldn't, but if this process is possible, then the next person might not be so scrupulous.


Manisha Tank:

Lots of people have written in very concerned about things like CJD. Mike Record, Weston-Super-Mare, UK: Does this mean you can now get BSE from chicken?

Obviously that wasn't the theme of the programme. But people are concerned. Graham Steel, he is the vice-chair of the human BSE foundation. Having lost my brother vCJD, I am appalled that it is legal to add beef and other products to chicken. I'm certainly in agreement for clear labelling - indeed it was called for by Britain - but the EU must tighten up on the whole process. Where there any approaches made to authorities about this?


Betsan Powys:

Yes, the Food Standards Agency say that they are now battling in Europe to have the labelling laws tightened. What they are not battling for is to ask Dutch processors to stop doing this - because as Mike says, and he's quite right - it is legal. The risk of catching CJD from eating chicken where the beef protein is infected is very, very small. But nobody can discount it. When we've talked to BSE experts who say yes the risk maybe very small. But no matter how small, if there's bovine material in the product you want to know and you want to know where it's come from. So it is quite inappropriate and it is not acceptable at that it is possible to make an undetectable, untraceable bovine product because thereby lie problems. As long as all the rules and regulations are being followed and the beef is safe then no - you might not want it in your chicken, but it wouldn't be dangerous. But if you're not going to know it's there and if the manufacturer knows that you're not going to know it's there, it opens to door to far worse practices.


Manisha Tank:

Where does this leave us in terms in prosecutions? Ok it is early days yet on finding out all this new information - we have to tread very carefully about what we say. But so far as some of the companies that might be implicated, can they be prosecuted for mislabelling? And it seems that already you're saying actually no, because it doesn't make any difference really what's in there because it can't be detected by the agencies.


Betsan Powys:

Well it's a really good question and I don't think anybody does know. We know already on tests carried by the Food Standards Agency, the Dutch authorities are moving. But for cases so far in the UK have been based on mislabelling around water content - now that's bad enough - we found fillets that were 50% almost added water and it looked like a piece of meat but could you argue that it really was a piece of meat - well no, say the Food Standards Agency and it should be clear on the label. So there are moves to tighten labelling laws. But if you're not going know something is in a product - you might want to follow the paper trail and find out that way but again the implication is that it is far more than a labelling matter.


Manisha Tank:

You talked about paper trails there. Colin, Ayrshire, Scotland: Why is that company (I suppose he is referring to one of the companies heard about in the report) trying to make the additives untraceable in the first place?

Of concern here that you might know that your consumers don't like to have this stuff in the food and so at the end of the day you don't want anyone to know.


Betsan Powys:

Well if you watch the programme you can make up your own mind about why they're trying to sell it. We've phoned them covertly - we were there as potential poultry processors - bear that in mind when you see what they have to say. In their response to us which will be included in the programme - what they say is that we are making a pure protein, we've broken it down, broken down the DNA to make a very pure protein. That's quite acceptable, it has nothing to do with mislabelling, it has nothing to do with misleading the public, we would never do that. They also point out that it is up to the processor what's actually on the label and that's not their business. You'll you just have to watch the covert filming and make up your own mind as to why you think they're doing it.


Manisha Tank:

We've got an e-mail that's just come in from Joanna Heselwood, Lincolnshire: I usually buy organic meat - is this allowed to contain hydrolysed proteins?


Betsan Powys:

If the meat was organic it depends how it has been processed after being reared. The rearing process would have been organic, what happens to it afterwards - it could go through a processing point. If its fresh organic then no it won't - it won't have the added water, it won't have the hydrolysed protein and it certainly should be on the label if it does. What we're talking about very much is frozen chicken - frozen chicken fillets - it gets everywhere. We've tested a product from a giant food distributor and they have taken their boxes off the shelves on the basis of the tests we conducted and their own. We found beef DNA, their tests didn't, but they are saying that yes, the meat content was very, very low - far lower than we had understood from the label and so we're taking it off the shelf. It gets around but we are talking about frozen chicken - if you buy fresh that's not what we're talking about here.


Manisha Tank:

One of the issues that was raised was for some people who might like to buy halal meat, for example. The idea that pork is being injected into these meats was a huge concern. But then one might think, well if you want to buy halal meat you're going go for the safe option, you're not going to buy frozen fillets. But were there any implications there? Did you look at that area of concern?


Betsan Powys:

Yes, certainly we tested for bovine and porcine DNA and we found both. The Food Standards Agency also found a lot of porcine DNA in products that were being sold as halal. Again we're talking about these big 10 kilogramme boxes but then they go into take-aways, they go into all sorts of places who might claim that their food is halal, well clearly it can't be. So something that's going wrong somewhere on the way.

But we developed on the chicken run - what we felt was that because we were discovering that these additives were actually being disguised was that that's what we should be looking at. But certainly our tests did shown - and the Halal Society have made it very clear that it is entirely unacceptable that you think you're eating one thing and you're buying it for that specific purpose and it's horrific for people in those terms to find out they're eating something they didn't want to eat.


Manisha Tank:

And that brings us to the question that we started with about whether this is a moral issue or an issue of just should we know. Maybe we should all be more aware about what it is we're eating. Betsan Powys of Panorama, thank you so much for answering those questions.




SEE ALSO:
The Chicken Run
19 May 03  |  Panorama
Consumers 'conned over chicken'
12 Mar 03  |  Health
'Chemical' chicken scam revealed
12 Dec 01  |  Business
Chicken quality scheme unveiled
29 Mar 00  |  Business


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