Companies used meat slurry to make baby food

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Hundreds of tons of cheap meat at risk of "mad cow" disease was used to make baby food during the 1980s when the BSE epidemic was at its height.

One manufacturer of baby food has admitted using large amounts of mechanically recovered meat (MRM), stripped from cattle carcasses using high-pressure water hoses, at a time when millions of animals were infected with BSE.

The name of the baby food company has never been divulged, even though it has been known to the food industry since 1997 when a confidential survey took place of the meat-processing firms that used MRM during the 1980s.

But an industry trade body involved in the survey yesterday was unable to make public the companies that have used low-grade beef in baby food, a day after it promised to co-operate with an inquiry into the use of cheap meat infected with BSE.

An investigation by The Independent has found that the British Meat Manufacturers Association had secretly drawn up a list of its members who used MRM during the 1980s.

The list includes at least one company that regularly included MRM in its baby food products. However, the association was unable yesterday to name this or any other company that included MRM in pies, burgers, sausages and other products in the late 1980s and early 1990s. A spokesman for the British Meat Manufacturers Association said last night: "The simple truth is we can't find the data. We've turned the place upside down but the information has been lost."

Senior scientific advisers to the Government have repeatedly asked for this information to help them assess how much BSE-infected material went into the human food chain – particularly as baby food. The information is crucial in predicting the future course of the epidemic of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – BSE in humans – which has so far killed 97 people.

Although the British Meat Manufacturers Association said it will co-operate with an investigation into the use of MRM by the Food Standards Agency, it has not told the agency about the list. The FSA was not even aware of the list's existence until told of it yesterday.

The list was drawn up as part of a 1997 investigation into the use of offal by the Leatherhead Food Research Association, an independent industry body which had been commissioned by the Government on behalf of scientists sitting on its Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee (Seac). Bob Hart, the scientist at Leatherhead who wrote the report, said the British Meat Manufacturers Association collaborated by sending a questionnaire to 83 of its members. About 50 of them replied to the questions, which included one about whether they used MRM.

The association coded the information so that Dr Hart did not know the names of the companies. One unnamed food firm said that it had used "several hundred tons" of MRM in baby food between 1986 and 1990.

Scientists within Seac are concerned about MRM because of the way it is forcibly stripped from cattle bones, including the spinal cord – one of the tissues known to be at highest risk of BSE.

Dr Hart said that, in the late 1980s, food companies in Britain were producing about 5,000 tons of MRM a year. About two tons of this annual production would have been pure spinal cord, based on an average contamination level of 0.04 per cent. Dr Hart says in his report that the estimates are conservative because they assume that spinal cord material was removed from most cattle carcasses before they were stripped of MRM.

"However, there is likely to be considerable variation about this figure. The worst case (where all of the vertebral columns contained intact spinal column) would give 2.8 per cent contamination. In a 100g meat product, containing 10 per cent of such beef, MRM would contain 0.28g of spinal cord," the report says.

Dr Hart found that production of MRM increased dramatically between the first half and the last half of the 1980s.

"A confidential response from a producer of MRM quoted production figures of 1,456 tons in the former period and 5,049 tons in the latter," says Dr Hart's report.

The British Meat Manufacturers Association kept the raw data on which the report is based without divulging the names of the companies who took part, Dr Hart said. This is the information the association now says it has lost.

Two of Britain's leading baby food manufacturers said yesterday that they have never used MRM containing spinal cord.

David Wells, for Heinz, said: "We have never used beef MRM in any of our products."

Dennis Segal, medical director of Cow & Gate, said: "We have never used meat from the spinal column or any other specified risk materials in our products. We have always maintained strict controls over the quality and safety of the meat used in our products."

A further statement from Cow & Gate says: "For a short period (1983-1988), mechanical separation was used to obtain the meat for our jar foods, however our suppliers were regularly audited to ensure that offal, or meat from the spinal column, was specifically excluded from the process. This process is no longer used for any of our products."

However, it is clear from the Leatherhead report that tons of MRM, possibly containing many thousands of doses of BSE, ended up in baby food.

The Food Standards Agency now intends to pursue the issue with the British Meat Manufacturers Association. "We will expect the association to provide us with this and any other data on MRM," a spokesman for the FSA said.

Risk factors

¿ Mechanically recovered meat (MRM) is considered the most likely risk factor in the transmission of BSE from cattle to humans because it almost certainly contained high levels of infected spinal cord material.

¿ After meat is trimmed from the carcasses, any remnants are blasted away from the bone using high-pressure water hoses. The resulting slurry or "paste" is used to bulk up cheaper products such as meat pies, sausages and burgers.

¿ It is estimated 10 per cent of the weight of some products would have contained MRM. Britain was producing 5,000 tons per year at the end of the 1980s.

¿ The Government banned the use of beef MRM in 1995 when it was realised segments of spinal cord were still entering the food chain six years after it was prohibited.