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Serious food safety issues within Dutch meat industry28 March 2014, by Alexandra Gowling
A report by the Dutch Safety Board into the meat processing industry in the Netherlands has concluded that food safety is under threat and supervision within and of the industry is inadequate.
The report was initiated after recent incidents in the meat supply chain, especially the horse meat scandal in 2013, which involved 50 million kilos of meat being recalled.
While concern initially rested with meat fraud, that is horse meat being passed off as another meat, the investigators found that fraud was also a food safety issue, as the inability to ascertain the origin of a product means it is also unclear whether it presents a hazard to human health.
Worse, their investigation led them to meat producing and processing companies that had serious deficiencies in hygiene.
They also found that that many smaller food business operators in the meat supply chain do not have the knowledge or the will to guarantee optimum food safety and do not take responsibility themselves for providing safe meat.
As for larger companies, their concern was found to often lie more with ensuring they comply with supply chain quality system norms and less on the reality of what can happen on the work floor.
Food safety in the Netherlands
Another report, commissioned by the Stichting Maatschappij en Veiligheid (Foundation for Society and Safety), found that the complexity of the meat industry is creating real problems for ensuring food safety.
"It's unprecedented how widely branched our food network is and how difficult it is to follow all the connections," said researcher for the report Marcel van Silfhout. "Slaughter residue comes into contact with animal feed, and that becomes meat again. At each step, food streams are mixed and processed."
A hamburger can easily be a mixture of scraps of meat from different slaughterhouses, he continues. "The one slaughterhouse could be in Eastern Europe, Canada or Uruguay, the other found to be using ammonia to kill bacteria and make the meat less fatty and give a light pink tint."
Food poisoning a problem
One example of what can happen when meat is not carefully regulated occurred in 2013, when two Swedish men suffered serious food poisoning after eating hamburgers at a hockey game. The meat, scraps of beef left over after deboning, was found to have come from a Dutch company in Twente that imported meat from six abattoirs in four different European countries.
The report says little is known about the number of people who fall ill from meat consumption, so it is difficult to say how serious the consequences of these failings are for public health. "However," it states, "what is known is that only a fraction of the true numbers of people falling ill are actually represented in the statistics. Even less is known about the number of victims in the longer term."
Food safety regulator undermanned
According to the Safety Board report, the main food safety supervisory body in the Netherlands, the NVWA, has over the past ten been reorganised, merged and subjected to spending cuts which have resulted in its manpower almost halving.
The Dutch government reduced supervision as it assumed private regulation would ensure that food safety would be at least as good. According to the report, this has not happened, and the Safety Board doubts whether the meat industry has the capability to manage real food safety.
This is due in part companies being unwilling to confront each other over risky behaviour, which has led to some operators breaking the rules for years as an open secret, as it is considered inappropriate for companies to inform the supervisory authorities on each other.
The NVWA is aware of the problem: the director of the organisation Harry Paul said recently that there has been a disturbing number of incidents involving food in the Netherlands and meat product producers in particular have a lack of ethical awareness.
"It has become normal to go as far as you can and hope you won’t get caught and that shows a blurring of standards. This has led to a number of serious shortcomings, which presents serious risks for the near future as well."
One recommendation in the Safety Board’s report is that the government together with the NVWA make binding agreements with private companies to structurally improve food safety, which includes food operators reporting unhygienic or illegal practices.
In response to the review, the Ministers for Health and Agriculture announced there would be a "fundamental review" of the system of inspection and supervision of the meat sector, with a lot more attention to fraud by meat companies.
For more information, read the report.