Food safety in Malta’s abattoir hampered by lack of Maltese-speaking staff

Staff shortages weakening controls on animal slaughter bolsters need for international staff and better wages for vets

The Maltese authorities blamed the staff shortages on the salary levels offered to junior veterinarians in the public sector, and the Maltese language requirement to qualify for the post
The Maltese authorities blamed the staff shortages on the salary levels offered to junior veterinarians in the public sector, and the Maltese language requirement to qualify for the post

Several animal carcasses with faecal contamination were accepted for cutting in a slaughterhouse in which veterinary officials failed to “correct the deficiency”, an audit by the European Commission’s Food Veterinary Directorate on the meat industry revealed.

Members of the audit team who witnessed the event had to intervene, requesting the trimming of the affected areas, with the task being swiftly carried out by the available personnel.

In their reply to the audit, the Maltese authorities informed the EC that their veterinary support officers had been trained to check and identify, and remove faecal contamination from carcasses.

The audit on abattoirs, carried out between February and March, found that Maltese veterinary authorities at all levels were “seriously understaffed”. This weakened the effectiveness of official controls on matters like traceability of red meat and poultry meat, the verification of cleanliness in establishments, and microbiological testing of carcasses at slaughterhouses.

Additionally, at the time of the inspection the posts of Chief Veterinary Officer and four out of five heads of unit were vacant; at the lower level, the tasks of several vacant posts were shared by available staff from different services, without appropriate training. “As a consequence, the frequency of inspections of food producing establishments, based on the risk assessment of their activities, cannot be respected, and relevant non-compliances with regard to regulatory requirements in all areas remain undetected for a long period of time.”

The audit said that no supervision of veterinary officials took place to give the authorities “a reasonable level of assurance that controls are carried out uniformly, correctly and consistently, and to allow it to take corrective actions if needed”. Supervision was limited to self-assessments and by some checks on the working documentation.

Furthermore, not all officials had the sufficient knowledge or experience to perform adequate checks; and no specific training was in place for staff given new responsibilities or to cover vacant posts.

Staff shortages do not only impact on the Veterinary Regulation Unit, which is responsible for the implementation of food safety legislation in production, processing, transport and trade of food of animal origin, but also health ministry’s environment health directorate, which inspects butchers.

EHD representatives said staff shortages meant inspections of butchers were being performed at a much lower frequency than planned, and do not always cover all items present in the inspection checklists.

Shortages blamed on Maltese language requirement

The Maltese authorities blamed the staff shortages on the salary levels offered to junior veterinarians in the public sector, and the Maltese language requirement to qualify for the post.

However, this will be modified for candidates from abroad, with newly recruited staff not fluent in the Maltese language granted one year to attend intensive language courses and undergo proficiency tests.

Still, attempts to recruit more veterinarians were unsuccessful. The last two competitions resulted in only one suitable candidate selected. Another call in March 2020 selected two candidates, one of whom declined the post.

Food safety procedures

The system for approval of food producing establishments also showed shortcomings, with all approval files seen by the audit team being “largely incomplete”.

It turns out that the competent authority does not keep the approval conditions for these establishment under regular review, contrary to what is required by EU law.

In contrast, the traceability of live cattle was deemed satisfactory, due to the regular update of the National Livestock Database.

An efficient system is also in place for emergency slaughter at farms of animals unfit for transport. This has dramatically reduced the number of animals deemed unfit for transport, arriving at slaughterhouses.

 “Several carcasses with faecal contamination had been accepted for cutting” and veterinary officials did not react “to correct the deficiency.” The audit team had to intervene
“Several carcasses with faecal contamination had been accepted for cutting” and veterinary officials did not react “to correct the deficiency.” The audit team had to intervene

Faeces found on carcasses

The slaughterhouses visited had satisfactory structures and equipment. The main slaughterhouse and cutting plant in Marsa have been refurbished and equipped to acceptable standards, even though still in need of some continuous maintenance.

Still, the presence of middlemen in the cutting plant was still allowed, and they were also permitted to cut their own carcasses. In one case a “rusty” saw was used.

Officials in the slaughterhouses and cutting plants visited had documented no specific checks on carcass hygiene.

“Several carcasses with faecal contamination had been accepted for cutting” and veterinary officials did not react “to correct the deficiency”. The audit team had to intervene, requesting the trimming of the affected areas, which was swiftly carried out by the available personnel.

In one meat-processing establishment, the audit team noted the presence of dirty crates in cleaned working areas, damaged wooden pallets in the cold store, and the presence of expired ingredients for marinating meat. “On the first floor of this establishment, where changing rooms, toilets and boot washing facilities were located, building works were still to be completed.”

In the meat processing establishment visited, a large amount of fresh and frozen cuts of pork, beef, and poultry were packed without traceability or labelling; the date of freezing was also omitted. Several pieces of meat products, originating from other national establishments and seen in the cold store did not bear any labels or identification marks.

In the poultry slaughterhouse visited, contrary to EU law, a large amount of fresh and frozen cuts was packed without traceability or labelling and the date of freezing were also omitted.

In another case identified in the report, no corrective actions had been documented following the appearance of three clusters of Salmonella on carcasses in 2019.

Animals had to jump to the slaughter

No particular issues were identified in respect of animal welfare at the slaughterhouse, but regulatory requirements regarding animal welfare during transport, especially those related to the suitability of vehicles, are not verified by official controls.

During a visit to one of the two red meat slaughterhouses visited, the audit team noted that three cattle from Gozo who had undergone travel by road and ferry of nearly three hours, had been transported in a vehicle not suitable for transport of live animals. This vehicle, a truck not belonging to the farmer, was normally used for the transport of bulk feeding stuff, and was equipped for unloading its load by elevating its trailer. The animals had to jump over the unloading ramp, because the levels of the ramp and of the truck floor did not meet for more than 50 cm.

Both slaughterhouses had appropriate lairages, with animals arriving the day of slaughter and provided with water.

Religious slaughter of farmed animals was also systematically carried out with prior stunning. In fact slaughterhouses have adequate procedures for religious slaughter: all cattle undergo prior stunning with captive penetrative bolt, and were then killed by severing the whole throat. Good records on the maintenance of stunning equipment were kept, and stun-to-stick intervals were appropriate to ensure a satisfactory animal welfare.

Maltese government reaction

The audit was part of a series planned across the EU in 2019 after media allegations of slaughter in several member states, including Germany, of cows unfit for human consumption and breaches in animal welfare rules during slaughter.

The Maltese government has now announced a series of measures to improve the situation, including a revamp of supervision, control and verification procedures.

A new officer was employed specifically to carry out veterinary duties in the public abattoir. Quarterly audits on red meat and poultry slaughterhouses are also planned for 2020, but were postponed due to COVID-19 measures introduced by the Superintendent of Public Health.

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