10: Meat to Die
There are many things which go in the world of meat which are completely hidden from view and under normal circumstances never come to light. It was purely by coincidence that I happened to meet a woman who worked in the meat preparation department of a supermarket. It was the matter-of-fact way in which she spoke about her experiences that shocked me as much as what she said. It also started me off on a trail of discovery which left me feeling more than a little sick.
The little conversational gem which began it all was when she talked about finding "peppermint creams" in the meat. Naively, I asked her to explain what she meant and I instinctively knew I wasn't going to like what I heard. Peppermint creams, apparently, are the circular, pus-filled little abscesses which they frequently exposed when they were portioning up the meat into its different cuts. The normal way of dealing with it was to scrape off the pus, cut out the affected part and throw it into the bin - not the waste bin but the mince bin. I knew it was time to investigate the state of the meat which passes as fit for human consumption.
It transpired that with a few exceptions, most supermarkets have little control over where their meat comes from and while some know the farms and the abattoir involved, most go through a dealer. Just as worrying is the lack of control exercised by big public institutions, often with some of the most vulnerable people in society at their mercy - hospitals, old people's homes, residential homes, schools. Almost three-quarters of them have no idea where their meat comes from nor its history. They also usually buy through dealers and they have no way of knowing if the regulations governing meat hygiene have been followed.
As central government increasingly cuts back on financial support to local authorities, health and education authorities, so the need of these institutions to economise becomes paramount and their search for ever cheaper meat intensifies. Unfortunately cheap meat often means poor quality, condemned, rejected, diseased meat. And institutional dumping is only the extreme end of a business riddled with deception.
The whole system of quality control is a shambles and the government's response is to create yet another unelected, unaccountable QUANGO (quasi-autonomous, non-governmental organisation). In this instance it is the Meat Hygiene Service (MHS). I carried out most of my research and uncovered the horrors prior to its existence but in my conversations with its spokesperson subsequently, nothing appears to have changed.
What about this for a bit of hope (or bullshit) triumphing over reality. Meat Inspectors, those with the responsibility for controlling standards in slaughterhouses, used to be employed by local authorities. With the setting up of the MHS they had the option of remaining with the local authorities in the environmental health department or transferring to the new body. Many of them chose to remain.
So, on its inception in 1995, the MHS had considerably fewer meat inspectors than previously, when it was acknowledged that there were far too few of them to carry out their job effectively. But I was assured by their spokesperson that they were now more efficient and better able to monitor standards because they were centrally controlled.
If you can believe that a bureaucracy in York is better able to control the inspection of an abattoir in Penzance than the Penzance Town Council, you'll believe anything.
One of the starting points for concern is the high value of animals, particularly beef cattle - in excess of £1,000. For a variety of reasons an animal can be declared unfit for human consumption - because of disease, contamination with antibiotics or medications or because it is a "casualty".
An injured, casualty animal must have a veterinary certificate, essentially to say that it has not been injected with any medication for a specified period prior to the injury. On this basis the carcass, or parts of it, can be used for human consumption. No vets certificate and the creature is declared unfit and condemned. The price with a certificate, considerable; the price without a certificate, nothing - just a trip to the knacker's yard and a pet food can.
With those huge price differentials involved there is every incentive to try and cheat the system and frequently those who try succeed.
There are three ways in which they set about it. The most simple is to develop an understanding with the local vet. A large farmer with several hundred head of cattle makes an enormous contribution to a vet's income. The old clichÈ that he who pays the piper calls the tune is as true in this situation as any other. All it needs is a weak or unscrupulous vet and a casualty cow, which should go to the knackers yard, is passed as fit for human consumption.
The second stage of the deception takes place inside the abattoir. All meat passed by the meat inspector is rubber stamped on the carcass. Not exactly an example of high-tech quality control as any High Street stationer will make a duplicate stamp for a few pounds - and some of them have done so. With a system where there are insufficient inspectors working under pressure, it is simplicity itself to stamp a diseased or damaged carcass or one which has been pumped full of antibiotics while still alive.
The third way of cheating the system is by night slaughtering which is one of the simplest ways of getting round the rules. Some of these rules, which include restrictions on transporting sick and injured animals which are too weak to properly withstand the journey, are not based solely on concern. When an animal is tired or ill or stressed from a long journey, there is a rapid increase in its bacterial levels, which can affect the safety of the meat.
Similarly with abscesses, the presence of "peppermint creams" isn't just a cosmetic concern. They produce toxins and high levels of bacterial growth, often highly toxic bacteria such as staphylococcus and streptococcus. Despite that, many of these regulations are almost unenforceable.
They are framed in such a way that there is no serious intent that they should ever be effective. It falls to the local trading standards officers who, on top of all their other work, can only implement the regulations by making random checks. It is time-consuming, almost completely ineffective which means there are few incentives to do it in the first place.
Cosy relationships between hauliers and slaughterhouse owners, particularly for night slaughtering, means that unscrupulous dealers can weave in and out of the regulations without ever being touched. In a manner similar to the way in which some companies buy bad debts, some dealers buy casualty cattle. Knowing that they can pass the meat off as fit for human consumption because of their deals with the slaughterers, they can pay more than the knacker man. Everyone along the line benefits except the consumer who eats meat which should have been condemned - not an uncommon situation.
A TV documentary team, with discreetly placed cameras, was able to show the reality of this cheating and what it means in terms of animal suffering. It revealed some of the saddest scenes I have ever witnessed. Lorries with sick and trembling creatures, unable to stand, being prodded and goaded into movement, treading painfully and fearfully through ill-lit yards towards a brutal death; stepping through the blood and filth of other, previously slaughtered creatures.
Another lorry with cattle painfully and barbarically slaughtered on the farm, their necks gaping wide as someone had inexpertly hacked away trying to find an artery. Others which, on inspection, were shown to have a kaleidoscope of diseases - gangrene, pneumonia, septic peritonitis - all destined to be killed and served as someone's dinner.
They also uncovered an equally cynical disregard for human health with the way in which meat is illegally used. Cuts condemned as unfit for human consumption, and stained bright green to identify it as such, have finished up in meat pies. Joints returned from supermarkets because they have started to decompose have been trimmed, washed and repacked as fresh lean meat.
The health risks of eating red meat have begun to filter through to consumers but ironically they are still mostly ignorant of this particular aspect of the trade. Combined with the risks from saturated fat, cholesterol and possibly BSE and other diseases, beef eating should be restricted to consenting adults acting in private and who can prove their sanity.
But more and more people are increasingly opting for the "healthier" option of white meat, particularly chicken. It's a little bit like jettisoning arsenic in favour of strychnine. As one environmental health officer put it to me; "Chicken should carry a government health warning, just like cigarettes and tobacco!"
Perhaps the starting point for any exploration of this bit of the food chain should be inside the food processing plants themselves. In some, where they work with red meat as well as chicken, the chicken preparation areas are often cordoned off from the rest of the plant. The work is carried out behind glass screens in a kind of quarantine, just in case the bugs which thrive in and on chicken leap out and infect everything else. The healthy option, eh?
One of the most widespread of these bugs is salmonella which, officially, infects some 43 per cent of all chickens. A recent test carried out by Birmingham University, however, found that almost every chicken they examined was infected.
The government's position is simple and straightforward and largely true. Proper cooking of the meat will render the salmonella bugs harmless. What they don't say but what the Birmingham test revealed was that nearly all raw chicken meat, in whatever form, is covered with salmonella. When you take it out of its wrapper, touching it in the process, you have salmonella on your hands and are likely to transfer it to almost everything you touch.
They have clearly shown how these transferred infections can rapidly grow and flourish, producing huge colonies of the bacteria on all kinds of surfaces. If one of them happens to be cold meat or dairy products then you have the potential for a very serious, possibly even fatal, bout of food poisoning.
How did we get to such a situation where something as simple as chicken meat needs a health warning? In fact, salmonella is in all farm animals but the main cause of the problem in chicken lies in the slaughtering and preparation process.
After their throats have been cut, the conveyor system carries the birds to the scalding tank, which I described earlier. The temperature of the tank is kept at 50 deg C - which is ideal for loosening feathers but totally useless at killing bacteria, which survive to a temperature of just below 63 deg C. If the tank was kept at this higher temperature it would prevent cross infection but would strip the skin from the birds, making them less saleable.
The next stage in promoting cross infection is the politely-worded evisceration machine which literally scoops out the chicken's internal organs with a spoon-like object. A water spray cleans the most obvious debris from the spoon between scoops but does nothing towards sterilising it.
Almost every other process along the line helps to spread infection from one bird to another until they all finish up inside their plastic wrappers, seemingly clean and antiseptic, emblazoned with words of marketing hype - "premium grade", "top quality", "farm fresh". On none of them does it say; "Danger, this could kill you!"
There is a meat inspection service in the poultry industry, also. It used to consist of people called poultry meat inspectors under the authority of a public vet but like many other things in life, it has been changed to make it "more efficient, more cost effective, more flexible, more responsive" and, surprise, surprise, cheaper. Inspections are now carried out by PIAs (plant inspection assistants) who are no longer employed by the local authority but by the owners of the factories whose poultry they inspect.
It is impossible to identify a salmonella-ridden carcass so the PIAs are essentially looking for birds which are obviously diseased or damaged. On average, they inspect 10,000 birds an hour or five every two seconds (sounds a bit like the new NHS). Even Superman and his X-ray vision would find this task daunting but the PIAs do reject some birds (presumably they have to be minus a leg or bright orange to be noticed). If they reject too many birds, the pressure on them to be less critical can be enormous - from their employers and from their workmates, who are mostly on a bonus payment system.
The manner in which salmonella and other bugs blossom begins at the very start of the chickens' lives and are endemic in the faeces-laden sheds. As a matter of course, the chickens' food is dosed with antibiotics which, in true Orwellian deception, are labelled as "growth enhancing".
They work by killing bacteria in the gut which are potentially harmful to the chicken. This allows other, antibiotic-resistant bacteria to flourish which are harmful to humans but which don't harm the host bird. Salmonella is one of them. Antibiotics have allowed this potentially fatal organism to prosper and the chicken-handling process has distributed it. But there are other, possibly greater worries.
The use of antibiotics is comparatively recent as they weren't discovered until the 1940s. As with so many other discoveries, the scientific world went into raptures and forecast a transformation of all our lives. The drugs were then liberally distributed to human and other animals as a cure for every kind of infection from boils to Tuberculosis. And to begin with they were amazingly effective, seemingly eradicating TB from Britain.
In 1969, a large number of cows died from infections which refused to respond to antibiotic treatment and the first trembles of misgiving began to be felt around the medical world. The assumption was that the cattle had developed a resistance to antibiotics through being regularly treated with them. At this time the same types of antibiotics were being prescribed for humans and animals alike. The fear was that if cows could develop a resistance so could humans!
The outcome was an enquiry headed by Professor Michael Swann which determined that humans should be given different types of antibiotics to those used on other animals . That has been the situation ever since, except that recent developments have begun to blur the boundaries in a potentially worrying way.
Reported cases of food poisoning in Britain have increased steadily over the last decade and now stand at around 70,000 annually, resulting in around 260 deaths. The number of unreported cases is infinitely greater. The numbers have not only grown but the severity of some attacks has also increased. Of great concern is the discovery that the types of antibiotics which are effective in treating food poisoning have reduced in number and now, for extreme cases when all else has failed, there is only one - Ciproxin.
It is one of a family of antibiotics know as fluoroquinalone and although Ciproxin has never been given to animals, an extremely close family member has. This is a drug manufactured by the Bayer chemical company and known as Endrofloxacine. It has routinely been used in chicken flocks throughout Europe - and one in six of the chickens sold in Britain is imported from Europe.
An even more widespread food poisoning bug in chicken (and unpasteurised milk) is a thing called campylobacter which, in 1991, accounted for 350,000 cases in Britain alone, nearly half the total. Only one death resulted but the bloody diarrhoea, abdominal pain and exhaustion it produces is extremely debilitating. Campylobacter has started to become resistant to the wonder drug Ciproxin, almost certainly because of the use of Endrofloxacine in chicken feed. It is feared that what has been produced is a "superbug".
The problem has been felt more acutely on the Continent but at least we have managed to learn the lessons from their experience - or so you would think. The government has just conducted "tests" on Baytril, the British-licensed version of Endrofloxacine, and has passed it for use in chicken feed in this country! Their tests, they say, show there is no problem.
To have conducted a short-term test when the problems arise from long-term use could possibly be seen as a cynical exercise in deception. Fortunately not all governments have acted similarly and the Swedish administration has adopted a more responsible position by banning the drug completely.
Bugs mutate and can become either more or less virulent. The miracle of antibiotics is turning into something of a nightmare as bacteria, through their mutations, develop immunity. It applies to more than food poisoning bacteria and many diseases are now simply failing to react to any antibiotics.
Tuberculosis is one of them and now constitutes plague proportions in many parts of the world and has even reappeared on the streets of Britain, particularly amongst the homeless and the very poor. It is now the world's biggest killer. Some strains are untreatable.
Another indication of the growth of superbugs comes from the US where it is estimated that 60,000 people annually die in hospital from a range of infections which fail to respond to any antibiotic. Mostly it was not the infection which was responsible for the person's admission to hospital but something they picked up while in there Food poisoning bacteria appear to be following a similar course.
An extremely worrying development is the appearance of a new form of salmonella, DT 104, and E.coli 0157, both of which are killers and are on the increase. The options for treating them are running out as resistance to five main antibiotics has already been identified. E.coli is essentially found in beef and in particular processed beef such as hamburger meat and sausages. Salmonella DT 104, like other strains of the bug, is found in most types of poultry and eggs.
There is also evidence that antibiotics may have a potential for promoting some diseases. It appears that people with a history of minor sexually-transmitted diseases treated with antibiotics are more at risk from contracting HIV. The time span before it develops into full blown AIDS also seems to be shorter. Disturbingly, a variant of the HIV virus has now appeared in cattle and a similar link with antibiotics seems possible (chapter 15).
However strong this relationship turns out to be, the fact remains that meat eaters are routinely eating flesh from animals which have been given antibiotics and the number of occasions on which antibiotics can be used, sometimes for life-threatening situations, is reducing. Meanwhile, the number of food poisoning organisms waiting to infect humans is increasing, encouraged by modern farming and production techniques.
Nearly 95 per cent of all food poisoning cases arise because of infected meat or dairy products. A meagre five per cent is accounted for by vegetables or fruit and much of this is a result of contamination by meat or animal manure. The reason why meat is more dangerous is our biological closeness to food animals whose bacteria are much more adapted to living in our bodies than are the bacteria of vegetables. There are, in fact, many disease which we share with animals and are capable of catching from them.
As far as I know, no one has contracted a fatal disease from a carrot.