Food Law News - UK - 1997

11/12 March 1997: HYGIENE - Government Statements on Meat Hygiene

MAFF Press Releases, 11/12 March 1997

Meat Hygiene

Following various press reports indicating problems with the hygiene in UK abattoirs and concern that a report which had been prepared was subsequently not published, two statements were made by Ministers. The following are taken from the MAFF Press Releases:

11 March 1997


"We are very well aware of the need for action to raise standards of hygiene in slaughterhouses.

"The meat industry has been given a clear message about this by Ministers and the Meat Hygiene Service over the past year. As a result of the Meat Hygiene Service being set up, standards have risen appreciably. I myself have held 22 meetings with industry and officials in this period to discuss hygiene matters. One of these was a meeting of the Association of Meat Inspectors, whose letter has been quoted in today's reports. I was particularly concerned to speak directly to them. It is members of this Association who work for the Meat Hygiene Service and so have responsibility for keeping abattoirs up to standard.

"They have been given clear instructions to apply the rules firmly. For example, if they see signs of faecal contamination, their instructions are not to stamp meat as fit for human consumption. Their job is to stop such meat from reaching the consumer. "We leave abattoir owners and managers in no doubt as to the importance of keeping to the rules on hygiene. Those who flout the rules face prosecution.

"There is indeed pressure not to apply standards properly. This comes from the industry itself. It is much better resisted by the single national Meat Hygiene Service which we have now, than it was by the previous Local Authority system.

"Last summer we introduced a monthly report on observance of BSE-related rules. This includes a section giving the names of companies prosecuted for breaking those rules. We shall not hesitate to give more publicity to breaches of rules in this area. The members of the Association of Meat Inspectors who work for the Meat Hygiene Service know that they face disciplinary action if they fail to enforce the rules properly. This threat is real. The MHS has to date dismissed 3 staff and formally disciplined 41 others."

Notes for Editors



1. Reports from the State Veterinary Service (SVS) have long shown that hygiene standards in red meat slaughterhouses are unsatisfactory. It was hard to get an overall picture while responsibility for enforcement lay with local authorities, but the SVS devised a Hygiene Assessment System and published a chart summarising standards for English abattoirs in the 1995 MAFF Departmental Report. It applied the same system for Scotland and Wales.

2. The Government set up a centralised Meat Hygiene Service (MHS) in April 1995 in order to make enforcement more consistent and effective. The MHS operates throughout Great Britain. It is an Agency of MAFF.

3. In its first year of operation the MHS carried out an exercise with Hygiene Assessment Teams to establish the standards in all slaughterhouses, as a baseline for measuring future progress and a tool for directing enforcement effort. As part of the exercise, a report was produced in August 1996 bringing together in summary form the principal findings and recommendations made by the Teams.
- establishing a baseline in terms of HAS scores where this had not already been done - i.e. completing the HAT exercise;
- raising by 10 points the average HAS score of plants previously rated below 65. Both targets were achieved.

5. It has similarly been set a target for 1996/97 that two thirds of all slaughterhouses should achieve HAS scores of 65 or over by the end of the year.

6. The MHS works to an Operations Manual which has for the first time set out national guidance on hygiene standards. This is an important tool in raising standards and is revised as needed. A specific example is the "dirty livestock" policy to be introduced through enhanced guidance now in preparation, which should be ready for publication in the week beginning 17 March.

7. The MHS has carried out a major exercise to review supervision levels in slaughterhouses, because of concern that in some plants it was inadequate. The outcome has been the award of contracts to Official Veterinary Surgeons (OVSs) for 1997/98 which will ensure that the appropriate amount of time is put in.

8. Ministers have recently agreed that the MHS should be strengthened at senior levels to allow systematic management of OVSs within the Service. They have also agreed that all MHS staff should have extra training on hygiene matters, so that they are better equipped. These changes too will operate from 1997/98.

9. It is essential that the industry itself recognises the need to improve its standards. The MHS told the industry of its concerns at its Industry Forum in August 1996, particularly in relation to criticism by EC Inspectors. Mrs Browning attended the Industry Forum on 18 February in order to express concern and to propose the setting up of two working groups which would help to define and communicate the standards that are necessary and so help to improve current practice.

10. The SVS is responsible for auditing the performance of the MHS. An interim audit report covering the period June to December 1996 is now being finalised and will shortly be available. It will cover mainly the application of the Operations Manual and the initial process of applying the HAS system. An audit report for the complete financial year will be available in May. It will cover the MHS operations, practice and activities and their compliance with the Operations Manual, relevant legislation, Codes of Practice and local working instructions.

11. The SVS has agreed with the MHS that it will conduct unannounced inspections of premises with a HAS of less than 65 to help judge the match between standards as seen by the two bodies. This should help to ensure that all are working on the same basis.

12. The MHS has been in existence for barely two years and is trying to deal with a deep-rooted problem. It has had to make progress against the background of the BSE crisis and the completion of the review of temporary derogations for slaughterhouses from EC structural standards. With the backing of the SVS it should be able to put pressure on the industry and seek their recognition of the unacceptability of poor hygiene.

12 March 1997


In a statement today at the House of Commons, Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg, said:

"The standards of hygiene in GB abattoirs is an issue which the Government takes very seriously indeed. I welcome the opportunity to set out the facts. Before going into detail, I wish to emphasise that before any redmeat carcase goes into the food chain it has to be individually stamped by Meat Hygiene Service Inspectors as fit for human consumption: this is a critical safeguard, the existence of which is being ignored in the welter of comment appearing over the last few days. Until 1995, standards and rules in abattoirs were enforced, with varying rigour, by over 300 local authorities. This was not a satisfactory state of affairs. For this reason we set up the Meat Hygiene Service, a major reform which was strongly opposed by the Labour Party and others.

The MHS has now been in operation for two years. In its first year, the MHS was required to carry out a review of all slaughterhouses in Great Britain to record standards, to establish a baseline for measuring future progress, and to decide how to allocate resources for enforcement. This is the exercise to which I referred in my statement last week.

In order to raise standards within abattoirs, the MHS was set formal targets. In the first year the MHS was set a target of increasing by 10 points the scores of those plants which were below 65 on a scale of 0 to 100. This target was met in full. For 1996/97, they were required to ensure that at least two-thirds of the plants exceeded 65, it seems likely that this target will be met. Although these scores are a useful mechanism for driving up standards, I should again emphasise that all redmeat must be passed fit for human consumption.

In addition, the MHS have taken a number of further steps. Thus, we have drawn up an Operations Manual, which for the first time sets out a national standard on hygiene and in the hands of MHS Inspectors is a vital tool for raising such standards. It specifically covers the steps to be taken so as to exclude "dirty livestock", a policy which, as I said last week, we will shortly be reinforcing in graphic form.

Also, since concern has been expressed that supervision in some plants may be inadequate, the MHS has carried out a major review of supervision levels. As a result the contracts now being placed with Official Veterinary Surgeons, will ensure that sufficient time is put in at each plant in 1997/98.

Further, the State Veterinary Service, which oversees the MHS has carried out an audit of the MHS methods in its application of both the Operation Manual and the scoring system. I will shortly be discussing with those responsible for the audit how best to carry forward their recommendations.

I should also mention the steps we have taken over the past year to strengthen the capacity of the Meat Hygiene Service. More than 450 additional staff have been assigned to the agency. Although these extra staff were appointed to apply BSE-related rules, they will of course reinforce inspection overall in abattoirs. Enforcement of the BSE rules themselves was tightened up sharply and, as the House has been informed on past occasions, compliance with the rules in that specific area is now satisfactory.

What I have just described is action already taken: I will now deal with action in hand. We have been working with the MHS on a joint action plan to drive standards upwards, targeting both the most serious problems and the plantswith particular difficulties. The main specific action points, which my Hon Friend the Parliamentary Secretary put to a meeting of leading meat industry representatives on 18 February, are as follows:

I have told the Chief Executive that in appropriate cases infringement of the rules should result in prosecution: also, where appropriate, consideration will be given to the revocation of licences.

The knowledge which the MHS has now of meat hygiene is clearly relevant to Professor Pennington's Inquiry into E.coli. It is important that the Pennington Group should have access to this knowledge. Professor Pennington has been offered a statement to be drawn up by the Chief Executive of the MHS.

Next Steps

I am well aware that public concern over meat hygiene has been heightened by the reports of the last few days. In my view those reports are misleading and do not take account of the important progress made over the last 18 months. I do not pretend that there is not scope for further improvement. But I can assure the House that MAFF, the other Agriculture Departments, and the MHS had been and remain determined to drive up standards and we are succeeding.

I turn now to the pieces of paper produced by the Opposition in recent days from various quarters and of various dates. They may yet produce more such documents. I will not speculate as to the motives behind their production. However, they must be seen in the context of our policy to improve standards. Set in that context they do not detract at all from the facts which are as I have just stated them to be.

The MHS will apply the rules ever more strictly and that this requirement will be reflected in the MHS targets for 1997/98. Each plant now knows where its weak points are. Plants which are found repeatedly to have low standards will face progressively stricter attention from the meat inspectors and, as I have said, in appropriate cases prosecutions and licence revocations will ensue. Our purpose is to bring our abattoir practice up to the highest possible standards.

Madam Speaker there is much public interest in this matter. My RHF the Prime Minister told the House yesterday that he was taking a personal interest in our efforts to drive up standards. I therefore intend to place a fuller version of this statement, containing additional detail about the measures to which I have referred, as an information paper in the Library of the House. I hope to do this by the end of this week. This will provide the basis for more informed discussion than that which has taken place over the last few days".

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