UK faces action over failure to police abattoirs

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Hygiene and health controls in British slaughterhouses and cold stores are not being implemented, the European Commission said yesterday. The Government now faces prosecution in the European Court for failing to appoint enough vets to police abattoirs against BSE and other infections writes Katherine Butler.

Britain was named as one of three countries now facing referral to the European Court for failure to do enough to combat BSE and protect human health. The latest accusations by Brussels come as a blow to the Labour government and Jack Cunningham, the Minister of Agriculture, who had claimed credit for transforming the atmosphere since the days when Britain was waging war with Brussels over BSE.

"Mr Cunningham is making all the right noises but they are still not respecting the rules," said a senior official. The failure holds serious consequences for the spread of BSE and the illegal export trade in banned British beef, the source added.

At issue in this row is a European Union law dating from the early 1960s which stipulates that veterinary officers must be present in abattoirs to oversee the conditions of slaughter and meat preparation. EU inspections have repeatedly exposed the absence of the required numbers of vets in British abattoirs and cold stores.

The Commission initiated proceedings against the Government early in September with a written warning about the inspection gaps. But a reply pleading staff shortages has cut little ice with the Farm Commissioner, Franz Fischler. Officials say that Mr Fischler is all the more disappointed because British ministers have gone to such lengths to claim they are co-operating fully with the fight against BSE and the battle against the illegal exports trade.

Commission experts said the absence of adequate numbers of government vets posted to slaughterhouses in Britain held serious implications for the food chain. Checks are supposed to be carried out before and after slaughter to make sure that carcasses are free of faecal material which if unchecked can cause E. coli infection.

The other worry is that the absence of vets means slaughterhouses could be flouting the strict national and EU rules on the removal of spinal and other nervous tissue from cattle which may be harbouring BSE.

"This inadequate supervision does not merely have consequences for the respect of the general public and animal health matters covered by EU legislation, but also for the particular problem of enforcement of EU legislation concerning BSE," said a statement from Mr Fischler's office.

Eleven countries received warnings about gaps in their health controls but only the UK, France and Spain failed to satisfy the Commission that they are being addressed.