Rules to curb BSE `flouted by abattoirs'

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The Independent Online
SLAUGHTERHOUSES were flouting the rules designed to protect humans and cattle against "mad cow disease" years after they came into force, according to the government watchdog.

Keith Meldrum, the government's former chief veterinary officer, describes in written evidence to the BSE inquirybreaches that continued to put people at risk of the disease more than five years after safety measures were supposed to have made beef safe.

A series of unannounced inspections of abattoirs and slaughterhouses had discovered serious lapses in practices designed to stop the most dangerous parts of the bovine carcass from either being recycled as cattle feed or from entering the human food chain.

Mr Meldrum says that in a meeting with Sir Kenneth Calman, the former chief medical officer, just weeks after Sir Kenneth had been told of the breaches, the CMO had nevertheless declared that beef was still safe.

Sir Kenneth says in his own written evidence, released last week, that he was astonished to hear of the strict rules being flouted and felt that Mr Meldrum had understated the importance by referring to the situation as disappointing.

Yet Mr Meldrum remembers Sir Kenneth describing the additional regulations designed to address the breaches as "`closing a minor loophole...we had done all that was needed to safeguard public health...beef continued to be safe'."

There were two key elements of the Government's early strategy to control the BSE epidemic and safeguard public health. The first was a ban on recycling bovine material in cattle feed and the second was a ban on specified bovine offals (SBOs) in the human food chain.

Mr Meldrum details the botched attempts to make sure both were rigidly followed by slaughterhouses and abattoirs during the period when the rules were progressively tightened after they were first introduced in 1988 and 1990.

Industry "contacts" tipped off Mr Meldrum in 1992 about failures to separate SBOs from other bovine material but it was only in March 1994 that officials in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) decided to review the effectiveness of the SBO ban.

Mr Meldrum was told in May 1994 of ``hearsay evidence'' that the skulls of cows with brains still inside were entering rendering plants with non- SBO material.

In June 1994 he decided to tighten up policing procedures. More than a year later, however, gross breaches of the regulations were still taking place. More than half of a sample of 433 premises were not "meeting the statutory requirements on staining" banned offal with green dye.

Mills making cattle feed suffered from "cross contamination" where infective material entered the bovine food chain, which continued to result in new cases of BSE after the ban had been enacted, Mr Meldrum said. Officials told him in August 1995 of cases where inspectors had found spinal cords still being attached to carcasses destined for human consumption.