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 that nearly all 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 on 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.
The Sainsbury's supermarket chain was the only company to admit to the possibility that it had used MRM before 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.
Professor Peter Smith, the chairman of Seac, 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 association has promised to co-operate.
The association did make its own confidential survey of members in 1997 but the data was lost during an office move.
The Independent, running a similar survey, contacted 51 members of the meat association 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 answer questions only from either the FSA or the manufacturers' association. Others simply refused to respond to the inquiries.Reuse content