Meat firms deny role in spread of BSE

Meat firms deny role in spread of BSE

August 20, 2001 The Independent (London) by Steve Connor

ONLY ONE British food company is prepared to admit it may have used mechanically recovered meat (MRM) during the height of the BSE epidemic, despite tons of the slurry being produced for human consumption in the late Eighties.

A survey of the meat industry by The Independent found the vast majority of firms deny ever having used MRM - believed to be the most likely route by which BSE infected humans - although it is known that up to 5,000 tons of the foodstuff was produced each year before it was banned in 1995.

Three-quarters of the members of the British Meat Manufacturers Association agreed to take part in the survey. The remaining 25 per cent refused to reply, even though the industry has promised to be more open about where the thousands of tons of MRM ended up. The continuing reluctance of the industry to provide accurate information on the extent to which MRM was able to enter the human food chain is hampering the work of Government scientists. They are trying to understand the scale of human infection through variant CJD, the fatal brain disease linked to BSE which has, so far, killed more than 100 people.

Sainsbury's, the supermarket chain, was the only company to admit to the possibility that it had used MRM prior to 1993, after which it introduced a policy of banning the material in its own-label products.

MRM was made by stripping the remaining scraps of meat and tissue from butchered bones using a high pressure hose. Scientists believe fragments of spinal cord, which could contain high quantities of the BSE agent, were likely to have gone into the resulting slurry, used for bulking up burgers, pies, sausages and baby food.

The Government's Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac) has, for several years, tried to persuade the meat industry to identify companies that used MRM when, and in which products.

The chairman of Seac, Professor Peter Smith, has written to Professor Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, to complain about the lack of co -operation. As a result, the Food Standards Agency has launched an inquiry into the use of MRM during the 20 or more years before it was banned. The BMMA has promised to co-operate.

The meat association had once carried out its own confidential survey of members in 1997 but the data was lost during an office move.

The Independent, carrying out a similar survey, contacted 51 members of the BMMA that make beef products to ask them about their use of MRM.

All but one of the 37 companies that responded said they did not use beef MRM, although some pointed out that, because of management changes, they could not be completely sure. Some of the remaining 14 said that they would only answer questions from either the FSA or the BMMA. Others simply refused to respond to the questions.

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