Science & Environment

Legal loophole allows banned mechanical meat in UK sausages

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Media captionSausage maker Kevin McWhinney campaigns for good quality food - he asks, what goes into cheap sausages?

The BBC has learned that European meat suppliers are using a loophole in the law to sell a banned low quality material to UK sausage makers.

Emails indicate that suppliers are selling a form of mechanically recovered residue under different names so that it can be legally termed meat in Britain.

One of the UK's biggest sausage suppliers admitted that some of this meat is in their products but where used it is always declared.

Another manufacturer told the BBC he believes the product is being widely used in Britain.

In April 2012 the European Union told the British government that a type of mechanically separated meat (MSM) used across the UK could no longer count towards the meat content of a product.

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Called desinewed meat (DSM), it had been introduced into the UK in the 1990s and supporters argued that it was a higher form of recovered meat, retrieved from animal bones using low pressure water. Visually it is said to be similar to a fine mince, and closer to meat than the more liquid MSM "slurry".

The EU said DSM could still be used in UK meat products but could not be considered part of the meat content. This ban should also apply to desinewed meat across every member state.

But the BBC has learned that across Europe many suppliers continue to produce desinewed meat using different names including "Baader meat" and "3mm mince".

Baader meat is made using a machine from the Baader company in Germany and according to a spokesman, the device removes the membrane and the sinew and in the end "it is meat!"

Suppliers that use the Baader system in Germany, the Netherlands, France and Spain all stated they believed their desinewed products are outside the EU ban and can count towards the meat content of sausages and other foods.

In e-mails seen by the BBC, some of these companies say they are very keen to supply it to the UK.

"My information is that you only have to declare MSM, and Baader no," said one German based supplier.

"I know it is very strange but I didn't invent these laws," he writes.

A supplier of chicken meat made a similar point in another email: "Declarable MSM is derived from chickens with all the meat and skin in its original format and minced via the Baader machine, all the bones are separated mechanically. This format can be declared as meat in the ingredients."

Baader process

Mark Fiddy is the managing director of Poultex, a UK based international meat and poultry trading firm. I asked him if his company sold Baader meat in the UK.

"Well we supply that product, I can't say who we supply it to or what they do with it, but we supply that product," he said.

I asked him if that Baader meat can count towards the actual meat content of a sausage in the UK.

He replied: "Well we buy and sell it, we're not responsible for the end labelling and what goes on meat contents and things like that."

Freshlink Foods is the largest private label frozen sausage supplier in the UK retail market. When contacted by BBC News they admitted that they did use Baader meat.

"Some Baader meat is used in our own branded product that goes into the foodservice market. Where used, this is clearly declared," they said in a statement.

Freshlink is a subsidiary of ABP Food Group, the company that owns Silvercrest Foods where the first products with equine DNA were discovered in January.

Image caption EU regulations on what can and can't be termed meat are causing confusion.

Other people close to the food processing industry in the UK suggest that the use of Baader meat is widespread.

Kevin McWhinney is a sausage maker in Northern Ireland who has been campaigning against the use of these types of meat residues for years.

"The UK should not be using this Baader meat but as far as I am aware it is coming into the country and is being used," he said.

This perspective is supported by Matt Starling, a lawyer with the firm Geldards who specialises in regulatory issues.

"We know that there are significant (EU) exports of Baader meat, and it is fair to assume, and that's the government's view, that it is being used to replace DSM," he told BBC News.

"And that view of the government was strongly made by the minister last year and is shared, as I understand, by the FSA."

He said there was a legal inconsistency between the UK and the EU because the Commission hadn't specifically banned the Baader meat process.

"The matter hasn't been tested, but as things stand there appears to be no clear legal redress if a company does export Baader and it is used to replace the products that we were producing ourselves until they were banned last year."

When contacted by the BBC, a spokesman for the EU said that as far as the Union is concerned Baader meat is MSM.

Sausage maker Kevin McWhinney's family have been in the business for five generations - he agrees wholeheartedly with the position taken by the EU. Whether the process is called Baader meat or DSM or 3mm mince, to him it was all the same.

"The powers that be would have you think its different because it uses a low pressure - but it is the same bones, same scraps off the bones, the same machines, just with different pressure. Someone's just trying to invent a new product," he said.

Many people connected to the meat industry in Britain say the EU has "used a sledgehammer" against the UK on this issue, while letting other European countries effectively get away with continuing to sell similar products without restrictions.

Dr Duncan Campbell is one of Britain's most senior food inspectors and head of West Yorkshire Analytical Services.

"What is clear is that there is a lack of uniformity of enforcement of EU regulation - and that is the loophole that is allowing material to be counted as meat in another European member state - the same product would not be considered meat in the UK," he said.

But there is also the sense that the intense downward pressure on prices driven by supermarkets is pushing manufacturers to find the cheapest ingredients.

One EU based meat supplier pointed out that a half kilo of sausages was selling in one supermarket for less than a euro.

It was impossible, he said, to produce meat at that price without cutting corners.

Bottled water is more expensive than this, he added.

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