Meat inspection: Making risk a factor in meat inspections

The main purpose of meat inspection is to assure consumers about the safety, sound hygiene and nutritional value of their food. Through checks on the live animal, carcass, offal, abattoirs, equipment, personnel and transport meat inspection can also help to detect and prevent public health hazards such as food-borne pathogens or chemical contaminants in food of animal origin.

Meat inspection also plays an integral part in the overall monitoring of many animal diseases and of compliance with animal welfare standards. Traditional practices in many countries involve sensory checks (by sight, touch and incision) for the presence of gross lesions or flaws such as bruises or broken bones. However, these are not always suitable for detecting food-borne diseases such as campylobacteriosis, salmonellosis and virulent strains of E.coli, or contamination by chemical substances such as steroids or veterinary drug residues.

In the light of requests received from Member States, the European Commission decided that meat inspection practices in the EU should be modernised. Consequently, in May 2010, EFSA was asked for scientific advice on the possible introduction of a risk-based approach to meat inspection, at all relevant stages of the meat production chain.

To fulfil this complex mandate, EFSA is drawing on its expertise in a wide range of fields within its scientific remit (risk assessment and data monitoring of biological hazards, chemical contaminants, animal health and welfare) to deliver scientific opinions and reports for the following six animal species/ groups of species: domestic swine, poultry, cattle, domestic sheep and goats, as well as farmed game and domestic solipeds (single-hoofed animals such as the horse, donkey or ass).

EFSA’s role is to: identify and rank public health hazards – biological and chemical – in meat; assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current inspection methodology; recommend methods for spotting hazards not addressed by current meat inspection; and recommend adaptations of methods and/or frequency of inspections based on the hazard rankings and new harmonised epidemiological indicators (which EFSA must also propose). The Authority is also required to consider the implications for animal health and welfare of any proposed changes to current inspection practices.

In October 2011, EFSA made its first major contribution by publishing its scientific opinion on the public health hazards covered by inspection of swine meat, and the accompanying scientific report on harmonised epidemiological indicators for this type of meat inspection.

EFSA’s experts concluded that current inspection methods do not enable the early detection of the first three of these hazards and, more broadly, do not differentiate food safety aspects from meat quality aspects, prevention of animal diseases or occupational hazards.

To reduce biological hazards, they recommended the abolition of touch and/ or incision techniques in post-mortem inspection of pigs subject to routine slaughter because of the risk of bacterial cross-contamination.

When EFSA and its partners complete this work, risk managers will have the best scientific information and advice possible for establishing a comprehensive meat inspection regime across the EU, potentially bringing far-reaching benefits to consumers.