‘Serious public health risk’ persists at abattoir

‘Serious public health risk’ persists at abattoir

Serious shortcomings in the maintenance and hygiene practices in the old government slaughterhouse are the order of the day, a report by the European Commission shows, revealing that little has changed since the first EU inspections in Marsa.

The EC's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) found hygiene problems at the government abattoir which could pose a "serious public health risk" in an audit that took place in Malta from 22 to 31 January 2013 - only few weeks before the last general election, when former Rural Affairs Minister George Pullicino was still responsible for the sector.

The report was published by the FVO this week.

One of the more serious shortcomings was "visual faecal contamination present on many bovine carcasses due to poor operational practices".

According to the report, "The operational hygiene problems identified during slaughter of bovine animals could pose a serious public health risk."

The audit team also noted serious shortcomings regarding maintenance and cleaning, such as widespread rusty overhead structures and peeling paint over carcass railings, inadequate pest proofing of the facility, and widespread mould growth in the carcass chiller due to excessive condensation.

A previous audit carried out in 2009 identified the same problems.

And as early as January 2007, MaltaToday revealed that cattle transferred to the abattoir in Marsa were facing a disturbingly cruel, filthy and unsafe environment that risked contaminating the meat sold for human consumption.

In 2010 an action plan presented by the Maltese authorities provided "satisfactory guarantees" in response to the FVO's 2009 audit.

But despite some significant improvements, the Maltese authorities have again failed to deliver on some of the guarantees and commitments. "The officials met were competent and sufficiently trained and skilled, but the authorities do not have sufficient powers to enforce the hygiene requirements in the old state-owned slaughterhouse," the report says.

The Maltese government replied to the FVO in May by sending a schedule of refurbishment works at the civil abattoir. In June the government issued a tender for the refurbishment of an existing singeing machine at the civil abattoir and the installation of a vaporiser for gas (LPG).

On the other hand the new, smaller, state-owned slaughterhouse - which has been in operation since November 2011 - is described as an establishment "built to a high standard fulfilling the requirements of EU regulations".

The main objective of the audit was to evaluate the official controls related to production and storage of food of animal origin and the follow-up action taken by the competent authorities in response to the recommendations made following an inspection carried out in December 2009.

The report calls on the Maltese authorities to carry out a detailed analysis of the structural, maintenance and hygienic status of the old state-owned slaughterhouse in order to establish a detailed and realistic action plan with clear deadlines so that the establishment can be brought fully in line with the requirements of Regulations (EC) No 852/2004 and (EC) No 853/2004 in a timely manner.

Chronicle of contamination

January 2007 The FVO paints a hellish picture of what cattle have to go through before they are slaughtered. In many cases, the killing ends up being painful, because of unsuccessful and repeated attempts. Cattle transferred to the government-run abattoir in Marsa on their final voyage face a disturbingly cruel, filthy and unsafe environment, raising the risk of contamination of meat sold for human consumption.

December 2009 The FVO reveals that persons not employed by the authorities were entering and leaving the slaughter hall in their civilian clothes and were even trimming carcasses after the post-mortem inspection. Farmers were also present in a technical room opening directly onto the bovine slaughter hall. The slaughterhouse was also not sufficiently protected against the entry of pests, and doors were left open to the exterior.

Carcasses were being placed directly on the floor of a truck while others were seen touching floors and walls. The unit used for emergency slaughter was not pest proof, and some old, rusty equipment was still in place.

Hygiene among butchers in the cutting plant was deemed very poor, to the extent that mobile phones were used during the cutting and hand-wash facilities were not regularly used. Butchers even used their own knives and none of the sterilising boxes were in operation. Cut meat was also placed directly on the floor of a truck.

August 2010 In spite of all the promises, the Marsa abattoir remains a hygiene disaster. An inspection by the EC's Food and Veterinary Office denounced the red meat slaughterhouse that was still operating without being in full compliance with general hygiene requirements. Mandatory examinations for the trichinella parasite in pigs and horses were not carried out in the previous two years, putting people at risk of fatal illness.

November 2010 The FVO reveals the "unsatisfactory" implementation of the salmonella national control programme for laying hens and broilers, owing to deficiencies in the taking of samples for the disease and the lack of a vaccination programme.  The report confirms that no vaccinations had been applied in the laying hen farms visited by the audit team.

April 2011 The FVO reveals that blood from the civil abattoir and in the poultry slaughterhouse was still disposed of through the drain instead of being incinerated, as required by EU legislation.

A true horror story indeed. I, for one, feel justified in never buying local meat and limiting myself to beef imported from New Zealand or Ireland. In my opinion, based on frequent empirical observation, the health authorities' control over the sale of food is also most inadequate. For instance, I suspect that frozen meat products such as chicken drumsticks and other prepared frozen food, is being imported in bulk and re-packed by local packers and even small mini-markets. I have bought pre-packed drumsticks which I later found to taste very odd and were obviously well beyond their sell-by date. The plastic packing showed the recent date of the re-packing. This is not only fraud on the consumer but very dangerous to health. The practice of re-packing imported food should be forbidden as it gives rise to abuse. I believe that health inspectors should take samples and test them and not rely on dates on plastic bags of re-packed food. It is my opinion that health inspectors are too lenient and lack rigour in their work, if not worse. There is no room for giving a “second chance” to offenders where public health is concerned. Small mini-markets should not be allowed to pack food unless they have adequate supervised facilities and I doubt this is possible in practice. Such food (chicken parts, breaded chicken nuggets etc) often does not even contain the most rudimentary requirements on the packing label which is intentionally devoid of detail. Are there enough health inspectors? How often are checks made? How strictly and professionally are they carried out? Are they surprise inspections or is advance warning given? Are premises inspected thoroughly? Are samples taken? Do workers in the food industry require health checks to ensure they have no infectious diseases? Are cutting machines inspected? Are cheese counter checked? These questions and many more may be of concern to the unsuspecting general public.
Bon apetit.
It is no surprise.I gave up eating Maltese meat products some time ago,not least because of reports like these. Next to go will be white meat products such as chicken, over whom I have deep suspicions that apart from lack of hygiene,cruelty in their day to day existence as well as their slaughter is probably the order of the day in most hatcheries/factories.
SHAME on you Mr.George Pullicino.