Sewage feed 'poses no immediate health risk'

Government scientists say there is no risk from animals that have been fed sewage, and no justification for a ban on French food
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The French practice of feeding processed sewage to farm animals may be repugnant and illegal but it does not pose an immediate risk to human health, scientific advisors have told the Government.

The French practice of feeding processed sewage to farm animals may be repugnant and illegal but it does not pose an immediate risk to human health, scientific advisors have told the Government.

Heating the waste during the manufacture of animal feed is likely to kill the common disease-causing microbes that might cause food poisoning and so there is no scientific justification for banning French meat, the scientists advised.

An investigation by the Government's Joint Food Safety and Standards Group (JFSSG), which reports to both the Department of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, confirmed that sewage sludge had been used in France to feed farm livestock.

The sludge included solid waste removed from filters used to treat waste water, residues resulting from the biological treatment of waste water and waste water from septic tanks handling human sewage, the JFSSG said. "Where sewage sludge has been used in this way, it has been mixed with other waste materials and heat treated to produce meat meal for incorporation into animal feed," it said. Heating the sludge would have effectively killed any disease-causing microbes present in the sewage and so it should not have posed any microbiological risks.

Other potentially dangerous chemicals could be present in sewage, however, notably heavy metals, poisonous organochlorines such as dioxins and drugs used by vets, as well as disinfectants and detergents. "French authorities were only able to provide analytical data on certain heavy metals. These data gave rise to no food-safety concerns," the JFSSG reported. Many of the chemicals are already widespread in the environment and would have been diluted down so there was no reason to expect the sludge used in animal feed to contain unusually high levels, it said. "Overall, it was concluded that chemical contaminants were unlikely to pose immediate health concerns," the report said.

However, the JFSSG said that the practice of adding sewage sludge is "repugnant to consumers and illegal under Community law". Yet, it added: "There is no immediate public health risk and therefore no basis for seeking a ban on French products." Other scientists, notably Professor Hugh Pennington, an authority on food poisoning at Aberdeen University, expressed their alarm at the system of feeding animal and human sewage to pigs, poultry and cattle.

They argue that the practice increases the possibility of recycling potentially lethal bacteria such as E. coli 0157 and campylobacter in the human food chain even though they are meant to be destroyed during heat treatment.

One former government scientist said that the illegal processing of sewage demonstrated how lax control measures must be in France to prevent contamination. "All it would take is for the man making the delivery to walk in his dirty boots from one side of the plant to another where the food is put into bags," he said.

France insists that feeding sewage has now been stopped.

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