Although meat is still sold in the old fashioned way, as a cut from a butcher’s to be prepared and cooked at home, in the 21st century, it mostly ends up on our plates (or in our ‘buckets’, kebabs or cartons) in a very processed form. In both cases, our ‘meat’ comes with a few extras.
Chicken and Turkey
There are many ways in which the animal known as a chicken becomes the product known as ‘chicken’. ‘Tumbling’ is the process by which frozen, sometimes salted, meat has water added to it by being tumbled in water like clothes in a washing machine. A solution of additives may be used instead or in addition to mechanical tumbling to help the water stay in the chicken, boosting its weight and thus the price that can be charged for it. Additives that may be injected into chicken include phosphates and hydrolysed proteins – rendered animal protein, as described in the previous section. One investigation discovered chicken pieces actually contained pork and some samples were only 54% chicken. Beef proteins are also used, despite the risks of BSE.
Producers and retailers love “value-added” products – in other words, basic meats enhanced in a way which allows them to be sold for a higher price at a higher profit. Enhancement may take the form of dressing up a ‘quality’ cut with spices or, more commonly, rendering an essentially unpalatable product attractive. Chicken nuggets are wrapped in breadcrumbs for a reason – they are essentially just chicken MRM mixed with gums, flavourings, polyphosphates and soya for extra bulk. Sugars may even be added and the resulting camouflaged paste is sold as a fun food, mostly to children.
Processed red meat in the form of – among much else - corned beef, spam and, of course, sausages, has been around for a long time. These kind of products have always been the perfect endpoint for meat from ‘low quality’ animals – such as breeding sows and exhausted dairy cows - and also for low quality meat from ‘high quality’ animals. Today, the law permits the use of over 400 additives in meat processing and the range of products is even larger. Few people would be surprised to find that cheap and cheerful food like beefburgers rely on preservatives – one survey found that 31 out of 37 products tested contained preservatives  - but meat is increasingly presented to us in the form of ready meals, many of which are far from cheap. Pre-cooked on an industrial scale, with its flavour frequently masked by spices or sauces, this form of meat is usually accompanied by a range of distinctly non-agricultural ingredients such as sodium triphosphate, sodium ascorbate, mono-glycerides of fatty acids and so on. Even ‘traditional’ products, such as bacon may be produced on an industrial scale in very untraditional ways. Pork cuts can be injected with salt water and often monosodium glutamate and where curing used to be done by smoking, it is now often achieved by simply painting the meat with chemical dyes.
When we think of ‘meat’ we think of cuts consisting of muscle but the legal definition for food purposes includes “fat, skin, rind, gristle and sinew”  – all of which can be easily disguised as an ingredient in a processed product. Although MRM has now to be labelled on retail products, most consumers don’t look at labels closely and – as we shall see – when meat is bought from catering establishments, they have no information about its origin at all. Nor does buying a fresh-looking cut of meat guarantee that it comes ‘pure’. Trading Standards officers recently discovered cuts of raw pork which had been injected with water being sold in supermarkets. Displayed alongside unadulterated cuts, this meat was even sold at a premium price.
Like every other commodity, there is an illegal trade in meat. But while a pirate DVD won’t kill you, illegal meat might. There is a significant trade in selling meat that is unfit for human consumption to shops and caterers nationwide. In March 2001 more than two tonnes of meat were seized by police at Denby Poultry Products, Ripley, Derbyshire along with other premises across the UK. The unfit meat was supposed to be used for pet food but instead was being sold for human consumption. In April 2001, 40 tons of unfit chicken meat were seized in Liverpool - destined for supermarkets, restaurants, schools and hospitals. The dangerous meat was being sold as meat paste, chicken burgers and had also been packaged as leg and breast portions and distributed across Britain.
Further, in June 2001 a report by the European Commission stated that British consumers could not be sure of the safety of “British meat and other raw materials in mince, sausages, pies and other processed products”. The report says that the “overall situation on meat products gives rise to serious concern” and checks on raw materials for food were “weak or even non-existent”. As recently as September 2004, an undercover investigation for the Dispatches TV programme found meat suppliers selling diseased carcases, offering to procure false health certificates and claiming to supply illegal “smokies” – lamb and goat carcases seared with blow torches.
A related and growing problem is the illegal importation of meat into the UK. The problem has existed for many years but has only recently started to be taken seriously by the Government. It is now estimated that between 4,400 and 29,000 tonnes of meat are illegally imported into the UK each year. Much of this meat is transported in suitcases and other baggage and is not even refrigerated, vastly increasing the risk of bacterial multiplication. This enormous quantity of potentially-contaminated meat is subject to no hygiene or health checks whatsoever and carries the risk of importing new kinds of infections into the country. The deadly ebola virus, for instance, is thought to be contracted through people eating contaminated ‘bush meat’ – wild animals killed in Africa. Bush meat is known to be imported into the UK.
For those who place their faith in traditional sources of meat, the sad news is that butchers’ stripy overalls and skill with a knife are no guarantee of food safety. In a survey carried out on behalf of the Food Standards Agency in 2003, some remarkable shortcomings in standards in butcher’s shops were exposed. The researchers sent a questionnaire to butchers asking them specific information and requesting that they performed a “self audit” on their practices. They followed up the questionnaire with external audits of some premises. 16 per cent of questionnaires were returned, presumably by butchers who felt confident that they would not embarrass themselves.
Questions testing the butchers knowledge of aspects of food safety management were answered correctly on just 70 per cent of occasions – meaning that they were answered incorrectly nearly a third of the time. The correct response to individual questions ranged from 96 per cent to as low as 7 per cent indicating, as the report blandly put it, “knowledge gaps/misunderstanding in some areas.” One example of such a “knowledge gap” was that only 47 per cent of butchers agreed that “campylobacter bacteria are often associated with poultry” – a link anyone who has simply skimmed this report could almost certainly identify.
A striking characteristic of the survey was over-confidence: 43 per cent of butchers thought cross contamination “could not occur” in their shop – even though 58 per cent admitted common surfaces for cooked and raw meat and only 36 per cent said that utensils for raw meat were kept completely separate from cooked meat. The physical audit identified basic problems such as failing to check the cleanliness of delivery vehicles and, most fundamentally, hand hygiene. The researchers concluded that “considerable potential for cross-contamination” existed in many shops.
The researchers also did some basic microbiological tests. ATP levels (an indicator of organic debris, ie dirt) were “overall, too high” and when they counted bacteria themselves, they concluded that “overall many counts were too high, especially enterobacterial counts” (enterobacterial means bacteria from animals’ digestive systems). Only 50 per cent of display surfaces for ready to eat foods were classified as “clean” in the survey - clean being defined as “free from soil or food and/or chemicals and/or when the numbers and type of micro-organisms (microbial load) is at an acceptable level for use.”
|“Even though self-audit probably provided an optimistic view of butchers’ shops, data . . . indicated that there was still considerable opportunity for cross contamination to occur.” University of Wales |
Amazingly, when the FSA released the findings of the study it trumpeted them as evidence of an improvement in standards since butchers became licenced in 2000. What is of greatest concern here is that knowledge is the key to microbiological safety. The court case resulting from the fatal E. coli 0157 outbreak in Scotland in 1996 concluded that the butcher responsible had a genuine commitment to cleanliness – he just didn’t have the knowledge to prevent contamination occurring.
It is thought that about half of all cases of food poisoning are contracted outside the home. Generalising about the catering industry is difficult, however. From the local kebab shop through staff canteens to gourmet restaurants, different standards and business priorities apply. Nevertheless, when the Food Standards Agency investigated hygiene standards in catering establishments in 2002, they uncovered some facts that should keep us all in our own kitchens. Their survey questioned workers and managers in small, independent catering establishments and found:
- 39 per cent of catering workers don’t wash their hands after going to the toilet
- less than half of workers wash their hands before preparing food
- only 32 per cent of managers believe that good food hygiene practices are “important to their business”.
One potential reason for this frighteningly poor performance is that only 3 per cent of managers considered retaining skilled, trained staff important to their business. Essentially, the hands-on side of food preparation and delivery is performed by short-term workers whose investment in the interests of the business which employs them is likely to be as low as the business’ investment in them: no wonder so many of those hands are dirty .
These problems are compounded by the sourcing of foods for catering. Food bought in restaurants carries no label describing content or country of origin and sourcing cheap raw ingredients is clearly advantageous for a very high proportion of catering businesses. The consequence is a reliance on cheap, factory-farmed and often imported meat. The tumbled chicken containing beef and pork referred to above was all supplied for use in catering - some 60,000 tonnes of it.
Would you like salmonella with that?
Fast food outlets are frequent targets of suspicion about standards of food preparation and hygiene – and larger chains such as McDonalds are vigorous defenders of their reputations and standards. While their facilities often appear clean, the basic foodstuffs used in fast food outlets tend to be ‘high risk’ chicken and minced beef products (mince is a particular problem because the mincing process spreads any existing infection throughout the meat). The standardisation of food products – a Holy Grail for the larger chains – leads to the mixing of meats in order to obtain, for instance, uniform fat content, further increasing the risk of contamination. An environmental health officer called to give evidence in the famous McLibel trial of the 1990s, described McDonalds’ standards on kitchen cleanliness as “necessary . . . not only to maintain "hygiene" but to overcome defects in an inherently unhygienic and fragile business” (emphasis added). As recently as summer 2004, the multinational - which prides itself on ‘global’ standards - has had its knuckles rapped by authorities in Norway over poor hygiene in a number of restaurants.
|“In my view, the standards presented in McDonald's outlets in the UK represent a graphic example of the use of visible 'hygiene' as a marketing tool, and do not represent real hygienic standards.” Dr Richard North, Environmental health Officer |
Food Standard Agency figures for 2001 indicate that only 70 per cent of food premises in the UK were ever inspected and half of all resulting prosecutions were of restaurants – almost always for food hygiene violations. The FSA did express concern, however, that a falling number of prosecutions reflected not improved standards but the unwillingness of local authorities to prosecute, presumably due to expense.
|There were nearly 180,000 violations of food regulations recorded in 2001, arising in over 40 per cent of premises inspected. Food Standards Agency|
The problems associated with restaurants, fast food outlets and food premises of all kinds reflect those at every stage in the process of meat production. It is abundantly clear that the problems of neglect, poor standards and inadequate regulation that bedevil the meat industry from farm through slaughterhouse to processing are still present up until the very moment it appears on the plate.