The UK’s Food Standards Agency has accused the meat industry of obstructing its BSE inquiry. Whether the accusations are justified or not, they are bad news for the UK meat industry, which has already seen public trust levels plummet. Companies in the sector must now do all they can to co-operate with such inquiries – and to be seen to co-operate. Even if this could involve some unpleasant revelations, a cover-up would be far more damaging.
The UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has spent several years carrying out an investigation into how much mechanically recovered meat (MRM), the meat residue left after ‘normal’ meat has been removed from the carcass, was used in processed products in the 1980s and early 1990s.
On Thursday morning, three scientists from the FSA went on BBC radio to attack parts of the food industry for blocking its investigation. The organization says it has been “continually thwarted” in its efforts to gain information on the industry. However, the meat industry denies it has been obstructive, claiming that the records simply weren’t kept in the first place.
MRM can often contain spinal cord, which in turn is the part of a cow most likely to contain BSE. If the data were gathered, then it might be possible to gain more conclusive evidence of a link between BSE and human vCJD, a BSE-like brain disease. Already, many believe that vCJD is common in young people because MRM was prevalent in school meals.
It’s not clear where the blame lies in the latest row. But it is clear that the food industry is losing the PR battle. A survey published on Wednesday claimed that 67% of consumers have seen their trust in supermarkets fall, with 18% having abandoned supermarkets for meat in favor of local butchers.
The key for the food industry – particularly the meat industry – now must be to appear as co-operative, honest and consumer friendly as possible. Damage to public confidence, which has seen meat consumption fall across the developed world, can only be worsened if companies give the impression of hiding the truth.
However bad any skeletons in their closets may be, UK meat producers should co-operate fully with all government inquiries – and make sure they are seen to do so. The alternative would be far more damaging.
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