The main purpose of meat inspection is to detect and prevent public health hazards such asfood-borne pathogens chemical contaminants in meat. Yet existing inspection practises often date back decades and might not always adequately protect public health. Traditionally, inspection techniques (visual, palpatory and by incision) for the presence of gross lesions or flaws such as bruises or broken bones have satisfied public health objectives. However these techniques 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.
Meat inspection also plays an integral part in the overall monitoring system of certain animal diseases and the verification of compliance with animal welfare standards. This constitutes an important control point for the early identification of potential problems that may impact on public health as well as on animal health and welfare.
EFSA has published several opinions on meat inspection procedures and provided advice on inspecting the meat of various animal species for tuberculosis and the Trichinella, Cysticercus and Echinococcus parasites.
Between 2011 and 2013, EFSA published the six scientific opinions on public hazards linked to meat inspection. Each of them was accompanied by a scientific report proposing epidemiological indicators.
Specifically, EFSA identified and ranked public health hazards in meat, and recommended possible improvements or alternative methods for inspection of meat at the EU level, including revising current methods that may not be adequate in detecting risks or are disproportionate to the risk involved. EFSA’s recommendations took into account the impact of proposed changes in meat inspection on the surveillance and monitoring of animal diseases and welfare conditions, and proposed alternative measures where possible.
The ranking covered biological hazards that might cause disease in humans by meat consumption (e.g. salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis, cysticercosis, trichinellosis, toxoplasmosis, etc.).
Chemical hazards were also included and mainly fall into three areas: the residues of veterinary drugs (such as antibacterial substances or sedatives), unauthorised or prohibited anabolic substances (such as growth hormones or meat quality enhancers) and other chemical contaminants.
Furthermore, EFSA put forward epidemiological indicators for specific public health hazards which can be used by the risk managers to consider adaptations in meat inspection methods.
The scientific outputs on meat inspection were grouped by species or groups of species as follows:
- Domestic swine
- Bovine animals
- Domestic sheep and goats
- Farmed game
- Domestic solipeds
EFSA provides independent scientific advice and technical support to risk managers on specific hazards within different production systems related to meat inspection. EFSA’s findings are used by risk managers in the European Union (EU) and the Member States to improve existing methodologies for meat inspection.
In May 2010 the European Commission requested EFSA’s assistance in providing the scientific basis for the modernisation of meat inspection in the EU. EFSA was charged, together with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), with helping to introduce a risk-based approach to meat inspection, at all relevant stages of the meat production chain. To fulfil this complex mandate, EFSA drew on its expertise in a wide range fields within its scientific remit: biological health hazards including zoonoses (animal diseases transmissible to humans), chemical contaminants in the food chain, animal health and welfare, risk assessment methodologies and data collection.
The April 2004 Hygiene Regulations consolidated and simplified 17 outdated and often overlapping EU directives, resulting in an innovative and transparent single hygiene policy that shifted primary responsibility for food safety throughout the food chain to food operators. These new rules entered into force on 1 January 2006.
Regulation (EC) 854/2004 lays down rules for controls on food of animal origin with the aim of assessing whether or not meat and other animal-derived products are fit for human consumption. An additional important objective is to ensure the well-being of the animals themselves. This process comprises monitoring for zoonotic infections and agents and certain animal diseases through checks on traceability, animal welfare, materials and other by-products, as well as laboratory testing and ante-mortem and post-mortem inspection. Data collected in this way may be used to perform a risk analysis based on harmonised human health criteria.
Based on the experience of applying the Hygiene Regulations, in November 2009 the Member States called for new rules to modernise meat inspection in EU slaughterhouses and instructed the Commission to develop a risk-based approach for considering specific hazards or production systems. The scientific opinions of EFSA with the input of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control are key elements in the Commission’s legislative proposals.
The EU framework including EFSA’s opinions and recommendations must give due consideration to relevant international guidelines: the Codex Alimentarius’ Code of Hygienic Practice for Meat, and the Terrestrial Animal Health Code of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), specifically Chapter 6.2 on Control of biological hazards of animal health and public health importance through ante- and post-mortem meat inspection, and Chapter 7.5 on Slaughter of animals.