Following a request from the European Commission, the Panel on Biological Hazards (BIOHAZ) and the Panel on Contaminants in the Food Chain (CONTAM) were asked to deliver a Scientific Opinion on the public health hazards (biological and chemical respectively) to be covered by inspection of meat for several animal species. This Opinion is the first of the series and deals with swine. Briefly, the Panels were asked to identify and rank the main risks for public health that should be addressed by meat inspection, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current meat inspection methodology, to recommend inspection methods fit for the purpose of meeting the overall objectives of meat inspection for hazards currently not covered by the meat inspection system and to recommend adaptations of inspection methods and/or frequencies of inspections that provide an equivalent level of protection. In addition, the Panel on Animal Health and Welfare (AHAW) was asked to consider the implications for animal health and animal welfare of any changes suggested in the light of public health risks to current inspection methods.
In order to fulfill its mandate, EFSA’s Panels made the following key conclusions and recommendations:
On biological hazards, a qualitative risk assessment of foodborne hazards was conducted using data on prevalence in/on chilled carcases, incidence and severity of disease in humans, and source attribution of hazards to pork, with the chilled carcasses as the target. Based on this assessment, Salmonella spp. were considered of high relevance and Yersinia enterocolitica, Toxoplasma gondii and Trichinella spp. as of medium relevance presently in the EU, and were specifically addressed. The risk reduction measures indicated for Salmonella spp. and Y. enterocolitica would also be beneficial for controlling a number of other microbial hazards.
Also in the area of biological hazards, food safety-related strengths identified were that ante-mortem inspection enables using Food Chain Information (FCI), the detection of clinically observable zoonotic diseases, animal identification enabling traceability, and evaluation of visual cleanliness of animals. Also, post-mortem inspection enables detection of macroscopic abnormalities caused by some zoonotic agents, visual contamination, as well as of Trichinella spp. by laboratory examination.
The following food safety-related weaknesses were also identified: practical difficulties to clinically examine animals individually ante-mortem and that current use of FCI does not include all indicators to classify the pigs in relation to public health risk. In addition, current ante- or post-mortem inspection does not enable detection of the bacterial and parasitic foodborne hazards of most relevance as identified above; and microbial agents associated with common pathological conditions detected post-mortem are caused by non-zoonotic or zoonotic hazards which pose an occupational rather than foodborne risk. Also, using palpation/incision techniques during post-mortem inspection mediates bacterial cross-contamination. The Panel considered that the current judgement of the fitness of meat for human consumption does not differentiate food safety aspects from meat quality aspects, control of animal diseases or occupational hazards.
With respect to inspection methods for biological hazards, it was concluded that a comprehensive pork carcass safety assurance, with a range of preventive measures and controls applied both on-farm and at-abattoir in an integrated way is the only way to ensure an effective control of the main hazards. This would require setting targets with respect to the main hazards to be achieved for chilled carcasses, which would then inform what has to be achieved at earlier steps in the food chain. At the abattoir, the goal would be risk reduction for the main hazards through programmes based on Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP)/Good Hygienic Practices (GHP) and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), including: hygienic practice- and technology-based measures to avoid cross-contamination; additional interventions if necessary such as surface decontamination of carcasses (for bacterial hazards); and/or heat/freezing treatments (for parasitic hazards) as an alternative to related laboratory testing; and use of FCI to differentiate incoming pig batches with respect to the risk they pose in respect to the main hazards and to differentiate abattoirs according to risk-reduction capacity (based on process hygiene). At farm level, the goal is risk reduction for the main hazards, which can be achieved through measures such as herd health programmes and closed breeding pyramids, GHP and GFP.
Finally, it was considered that palpation/incisions used in current post-mortem inspection should be omitted in pigs subjected to routine slaughter, because of the risk of microbial cross-contamination. These techniques should be limited to suspect pigs identified through FCI/ante-mortem inspection and/or post-mortem visual detection of relevant abnormalities and where it would lead to risk reduction. In such situations, palpation/incision should be performed separately from the slaughterline and accompanied by laboratory testing as required. The elimination of abnormalities on aesthetic/meat quality grounds can be ensured through a meat quality assurance system.
A series of recommendations were made regarding biological hazards on data collection, future evaluations of the meat inspection system and hazard identification/ranking, training of all parties involved in the pork carcass safety assurance system, and needs for research on testing methodologies, validation of carcass treatments and methods to assess abattoir process hygiene.
On chemical hazards, the current meat inspection methodology related to the occurrence of chemical compounds in pigs was assessed. Such compounds can result from the exposure of pigs to contaminants in feed materials as well as following the application of authorized and possibly non-authorized drugs. It was concluded that chemical substances are unlikely to pose an immediate or short term health risk for consumers. In the current meat inspection procedures, these contaminants and chemical residues are not specifically addressed. The only measure taken at the abattoir is the sampling of tissue specimens according to the National Residue Control Plans (NRCP) as defined in Council Directive 96/23/EC.
Considering the outcome of the NRCP for the period 2005-2009, as well as substance specific parameters such as the toxicological profile and the likelihood of the occurrence of residues in pig meat, a ranking of substances is presented. This ranking comprises four categories, denoted as high, medium, low and negligible potential concern. Dioxins, dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (DL-PCBs) and the banned antibiotic chloramphenicol were ranked as being of high potential concern. Ranking should be updated regularly when new data become available.
Opportunities were identified to develop strategies for risk-based inspection of chemical hazards by means of differentiated sampling plans taking into account FCI data. It was also suggested to include competent ante- and post-mortem inspection criteria for the identification of illicit use of substances and to encourage analyses at the farm level. It was noted, however, that all measures taken to improve the efficacy of meat inspection protocols need to address the compliance of imports from Third Countries into the EU with these strategies.
In this mandate, the implications for animal health and welfare and surveillance of changes to the current meat inspection system proposed were also evaluated. These changes included a shortened duration of transport and lairage, removal of palpation and incision from post-mortem inspection, and the introduction of risk categorisation. In broad terms, surveillance for animal health and welfare is conducted for early detection, case-finding and estimating prevalence, and measurements of surveillance quality vary according to surveillance purpose. Two methodologies (qualitative and quantitative) were used to assess the quality of both the current and proposed modified meat inspection systems. The former relied on expert opinion and a review of the literature, and the latter used a three stage epidemiological modelling approach. During current systems of meat inspection, the probability of detection is often low, particularly for non-typical cases. There will be some reduction in detection probability with a shift from the current to the proposed modified system of pig meat inspection. The magnitude of this difference will vary, depending on the disease/condition. For typical cases of diseases/conditions that generally affect several organs, the difference is likely to be minimal. To mitigate the reduced disease/condition detection probability of the proposed modified system, palpation and/or incision should be conducted as a follow-up to visual inspection whenever abnormalities are seen. Meat inspection, both ante- and post-mortem, was highlighted as a key component of the overall surveillance system for pig health and welfare. There have been several occasions within the EU where outbreaks of epidemic diseases have first been detected during meat inspection. It was also noted that pig health and welfare surveillance information is currently greatly under-utilised. Several recommendations were made.