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Red light flashing on Salmonella

Salmonella blog header

By guest blogger Will Hatchett, Food Journalist

The recent alarming discovery of more than 300 cases of Salmonella Typhimurium linked to lamb products in the UK, is a further blow to the Food Standards Agency, following revelations about the laxity of food safety controls in cutting plants exposed by the 2 Sisters and Russell Hume cases earlier this year, which, in turn, followed the horsegate scandal of 2013.

It was also revealed in September that a UK pork processor, Karro Foods, had to destroy more than 460 pig carcasses following the discovery, by inspectors from the United States Department for Agriculture (USDA), of serious hygiene failings. In the company’s Yorkshire plant, meat containing faecal material had been allowed to enter the ‘offal-edible product processing area’, which produces food for public consumption.

Not widely reported beyond the trade press, the story is a shocking indictment of hygiene practices in UK abattoirs, for which, since its absorption of the Meat Hygiene Service in 2010, the FSA has had direct responsibility (cutting plants are dually enforced by the FSA and local authorities).

The FSA has been drastically slimmed down by post-2008 budget cuts – it has shrunk from five floors of a substantial building in Holborn to a few offices in far more modest accommodation in St James’s. It is dealing, as its main priority, with Regulating Our Future, which is no less than a new template for food safety controls across most of the UK. The FSA’s clear direction of travel, seen in ROF, is towards reduced human inspection of food businesses, including meat plants, with more emphasis on data from audits and the wider adoption of ‘earned recognition’.

Under ROF, when it is fully implemented, tens of thousands of businesses which are covered by national inspection plans under the primary authority system, will barely be inspected at all (every two or three years, or even more infrequently) unless a complaint is received.

But critics of this approach insist that high-risk businesses can’t be trusted to ensure their own safety and hygiene, insisting that effective physical inspection is needed. They will point out that the poor hygiene practices at 2 Sisters were revealed by covert filming for the Guardian and ITV. They may ask whether the FSA, as a regulator, should be directly managing its meat operations division. Where is its objectivity?

Those who have studied the conclusions and recommendations of the FSA’s review of meat cutting plans and cold stores, reported to its October board meeting, may argue that the report’s recommendations fail, lamentably, to deal with the systemic failures that led to the hygiene violations of 2Sisters and Russell Hume, the latest outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium and the shocking discoveries at Karro foods.

The report reveals a labyrinth of overlapping enforcement jurisdictions and a wilderness of unobserved rules and regulations. It proposes no radical immediate solution to sort out the bewildering confusion and pins its hopes on greater reliance on the paid-for industry assurance schemes which, arguably, have contributed to the current problems. Even the most charitable commentator would rate it as uninspiring.

The signs are increasingly evident of a national food crisis, which will inevitably lead to more infected and contaminated food ending up on our shelves and could jeopardise the UK’s largest industry – food manufacturing. If the FSA cannot reform itself, some will argue, surely a bigger, stronger and independent body is needed to sort out this mess out. But we are in the middle of Brexit and producer rather than consumer interests are firmly in control of policy making – which is the reason (most people have forgotten) why the FSA was set up in the first place. Does anyone remember the BSE crisis?

The UK’s sheep flock is huge. We have a quarter of EU’s animals and are the sixth largest producer of lamb and mutton product worldwide. If the number of cases of Salmonella typhimurium contracted from lamb continues to increase, there could be significant implications, both for the politically vulnerable FSA and for the food industry, as we teeter at the edge of an era, post Brexit, in which the integrity of British produce and of our surveillance systems will be of paramount importance.

Hitherto, British lamb has been regarded as ‘safe’ by the food industry and the public. This week’s warnings, which relate particularly to eating pink meat and products like kebabs, mince and sausages, could put lamb in the same category as poultry, which most people know often isn’t.

In the 2000s, the FSA ran substantial campaigns to clean up our poultry flocks from salmonella and campylobacter and to educate the public on food safety. It achieved a degree of success but the agency had far greater resources then. In its new, slimmed down form, it must be viewing the prospect of a compromised UK sheep flock with some dread.

At the consumer and food business end, the public health messages are the same as for poultry – avoid, cross-contamination, wash your hands, clean your knives and chopping boards. At the policy and political level, red lights are flashing, not least in the HQ of the FSA.