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Beef find in poultry raises BSE fears

May 23, 2002 The Guardian (London) by Felicity Lawrence
The possibility that BSE may be in chicken was raised yesterday when bovine proteins were identified in chicken breast fillets tested by the food safety authority of Ireland.

Alarm bells rang at the UK food standards agency this year when it found undeclared pig proteins in chicken fillets being imported in to Britain from the Netherlands. It contacted the Irish agency which then used more sensitive tests on 30 samples of chicken imported from the same Dutch companies into Ireland.

Seventeen of the samples were found to contain foreign DNA; seven had DNA from cattle, seven DNA from pigs and three DNA from both cattle and pigs. The DNA had been added to the chicken meat but so far the authorities have been unable to trace where the bovine material came from.

They know only that the Dutch poultry industry has been using water and various additives such as milk protein and hydrolised collagen to bulk up chicken in a process called tumbling. The proteins bind in the water.

Hydrolysis is a process whereby proteins are extracted from animals, usually old ones which are not suitable for meat, or animals parts such as skin, bones and ligaments, either chemically or at high temperatures. But the process does not destroy the prions which are associated with BSE and its human equivalent vCJD. BSE is prevalent in cattle across continental Europe.

Wayne Anderson, chief specialist in food science at the Irish agency confirmed that there was a risk of BSE being in chicken adulterated in this way. "At the moment it is a theoretical risk. Prions are good at avoiding most things. The presence of bovine proteins in chicken is disgusting. We would be very concerned if the bovine protein source cannot be explained."

The Dutch authorities were playing down the finding yesterday, saying that the bovine DNA could relate to the practice of injecting milk proteins into chicken breasts. But since most of the samples tested carried false declarations of their contents, the concern among other safety authorities was that the companies had something to hide. Eight of the samples tested were labelled as halal when they in fact contained pig protein.

"We need the Dutch to tell us what's going on. Only the industry knows who the people making this stuff are. There are a lot of what ifs at the moment. What if it's material not controlled under the specific risk material rule?" Mr Anderson said. (The specific risk material rule requires certain parts of cattle which are most likely to transmit BSE to be removed from the food chain.)

Mr Anderson added that the Irish agency felt it did not have enough evidence yet about the origin of the bovine DNA to make a public safety announcement about it.

There have been concerns in the food industry for some time about chicken from the Netherlands. Large quantities of chicken breast are imported from the Netherlands to the UK, much of it tumbled. It is used widely in the catering trade. Sources in the industry say that it also goes into food manufacturing.

It is not illegal to add water and proteins to chicken provided it is clearly labelled. Unwrapped chicken sold in butchers shops would not have to be labelled, however.

Harriet Kimbell, consumer representative to Seac, the government's advisory committee on BSE, said: "This is outrageous. Why hasn't it been picked up before? Why were they looking for it? They must have been suspicious. What is bovine material doing in chicken meat?" She said she would raise the matter at Seac's next meeting in June.

Peter Smith, chairman of Seac, said: "It does sound worrying. The risk will depend on where the beef material is coming from."

The food standards agency said it would be conduct further investigations into the Irish findings.

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