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BSE meat 'went into millions of burgers'

October 11, 2002 The Guardian (London) by James Meikle
Consumers ate millions of burgers and other frozen meat products carrying potentially infected material from cattle with BSE, a food standards agency report said yesterday.

Large amounts of minced beef also included some of the 5,000 tonnes a year of mechanically recovered meat (MRM), machined off the ribs and vertebral columns of carcasses, that went into food during the crisis.

Much of the minced beef probably went to schools and hospitals. Research on whether it went into baby foods was inconclusive, but the main fast food chains are cleared of having used it in burgers. About 10,000 tonnes of cheek meat, from cattle heads, probably less of a danger but with the potential to be infected with brain tissue in the slaughtering process, went annually into minced beef and burgers, according to the report by DNV Consulting.

One manager said that a company he once worked for probably used 500 tonnes of bovine MRM each year in 40 million burgers and 25 million minute steaks. Experts in BSE and its human equivalent, vCJD, fear that the presence of spinal cord, brain and nerve tissue in food put some consumers at increased risk.

No companies were named in the report and much of the evidence was based on information gleaned in interviews with 41 people involved in the meat industry and catering over the past 22 years.

Seventeen of the companies they had worked for had changed hands in the intervening period, many had cleared out their records since there was no legal requirement to keep them, and few manufacturers had to audit their suppliers as they would have to now. The food agency commissioned the work after the government's spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee (Seac) voiced frustration about the lack of information about the risk to consumers from the early 1980s, before BSE was even identified in 1986, to the banning of MRM in 1995.

Spinal cord and brain were banned from food in 1989 but checks were lax.

The researchers suggested that MRM was abandoned in the mid-1980s because processors began using cheaper meat supplies from Ireland, which was also to face a BSE crisis. The image of MRM was already being tarnished as consumers learned about production techniques.

Peter Smith, chairman of Seac, said the information "confirmed what we had suspected before but we did not realise such a high proportion went into frozen mince". The use of both mince and burgers would have been fairly widespread and "it may be MRM was quite a good vehicle for getting infectivity into the human population".

The committee is to consider the results of the survey at its next meeting.

So far the number of cases, 117 deaths and 11 victims still alive, is small compared with the number of people who may have been exposed to the risk.

The food agency stressed yesterday that the work related to a "past, not current food safety risk", a comment which was condemned by Sheila McKechnie, director of the Consumers' Association.

"The findings are deeply shocking, as is the agency's attempts to brush the issue under the carpet by labelling the risk as irrelevant to today's consumers."

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