Inside the new Metro: Scandal in the Slaughterhouse

by Max Rashbrooke / 19 February, 2014
Moves to deregulate meat inspection are placing both consumers and New Zealand's export reputation at risk, according to a new Metro investigation.

The lead story in Metro's March issue, Scandal in the Slaughterhouse, blows open a three-year battle by a number of government-employed inspectors to prevent meat companies being allowed to inspect most of their own product.
Using leaked documents and first-hand accounts, journalist Max Rashbrooke reveals a series of food safety violations in the nation's freezing works, along with mistakes and failures on the part of the government.

Using leaked documents and first-hand accounts, journalist Max Rashbrooke reveals a series of food safety violations in the nation's freezing works, along with mistakes and failures on the part of the government.

Numerous consignments of New Zealand meat have been rejected by the US, raising fears that the meat industry could be the next sector to suffer a crippling export blow, following Fonterra's recent export controversies.

The revelations in Metro's story include:

  • Meat companies are being allowed to inspect their own product for things like faecal contamination (shit on the meat), despite its potential to cause serious illness or death.

  • Inspectors employed by meat companies are being given financial incentives not to slow down production by identifying contaminated meat.

  • The Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) allowed company-employed inspectors on the job with just two days’ training, as opposed to the 20 weeks that government inspectors have.

  • MPI failed to inform export markets about key details of the new system.

  • In one incident, an unqualified worker was allowed to inspect carcasses – and MPI may have misled the European Union when it inquired about the incident.

  • Poorly trained company-employed inspectors are unable to do the job properly, leading to numerous incidences of diseases and defects being missed.

  • Checks on company-employed inspectors are being manipulated so that their failures are not picked up.

  • The remaining government inspectors are being pressured not to raise their concerns.

  • Since 2012, seven shipments of New Zealand meat have been rejected by the US for having faecal contamination.


Below, an edited excerpt from Max Rashbrooke's investigation.

 

Shit is a huge problem in processing plants. Often, when the animals are being butchered, the large intestine is nicked or burst, spreading shit across the rest of the carcass, and there are numerous other ways — and forms — in which the contamination can occur.

“In some cases it will be chunks of shit,” says Ian Baldick, a former meat inspector with 47 years' experience in the industry. “It would range from faecal pellets in the anal cavity to globs of shit, smears…”

The consequences of contamination could not be more serious. Shit can harbour salmonella, campylobacter and e. coli. American regulators are especially aware of its dangers, after an e. coli outbreak in 1993, caused by faecal contamination, killed four children and left hundreds of people seriously ill.

A recent United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) report concluded: “Contamination of carcasses by animal faeces is probably the principal mode by which pathogens reach the consumer.”

Contaminated food is both a health problem and a reputational issue. Dairy co-operative Fonterra knows that all too well, following its recent series of contamination cases. Even though the largest of those, the botulism scare in mid-2013, turned out to be a false alarm, it did untold damage to the country’s export reputation, left Fonterra facing a lawsuit from food multinational Danone, and has caused smaller infant formula producers to claim that their market in China has been “virtually wiped out”.

Carol Barnao, deputy director-general of standards at the Ministry of Primary Industries, says company inspectors “only inspect meat for non-food-safety or quality aspects”. But as the MPI’s “schedule one” makes clear, that includes “process defects such as faecal…” If the change to company inspectors was genuinely a matter of non-food-safety inspections “only”, there would not be a problem. But that’s not the case.
Government inspectors who have slowed or stopped the chain have told Metro they have been threatened with knives and baseball bats and had company staff threaten to kill their families.

The shift to company-led inspection has plenty of other flaws, Baldick argues. A meat-processing plant is a pressure-cooker environment in which the company stands to lose money every time the chain carrying the carcasses is stopped. Government inspectors who have slowed or stopped the chain have told Metro they have been threatened with knives and baseball bats and had company staff threaten to kill their families.

Kelvan Smith of AssureQuality, the SOE responsible for meat inspection in New Zealand, confirms that intimidation does occur, even if “nine times out of ten” the incidents are resolved with the companies.

Company-employed inspectors, Baldick says, will be all the more vulnerable to pressure to keep up the production rate, even if that means passing carcasses that have faecal contamination. “In an abattoir, it’s all about the three Ps: production, production, production. Everybody gets their arses kicked if the chain stops. It’s not that people will deliberately cheat. It’s about people’s bottoms getting flamed.”

Affco’s Rowan Ogg vehemently rejects claims of intimidation. He says company staff are “put under pressure to ensure that our quality standard is maintained”.

But Baldick says company-employed inspectors have a strong financial incentive not to slow production. Unlike government inspectors, who are paid a fixed wage, company inspectors in some plants are paid for each carcass they inspect. Baldick says some receive more than $1 per carcass — a significant incentive to keep the chain moving.

Read the full story in the March issue of Metro, on sale in store and on the iPad now.

Photo by Grant Maiden.
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