US and UK campaigners are jointly lobbying for practical changes to the US meat industry to ensure high standards of food hygiene.

US advocates are calling for increased legislation that would prohibit the sale of salmonella-infected meat in the industry and the acceleration of carcass production lines. Their counterparts across the pond are warning against contaminated American meat flooding into the UK market after a post-Brexit US trade deal.

An investigation conducted by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and the Guardian uncovered appalling hygiene conditions in some of the US’ biggest meat manufacturing plants, with analysis revealing that 15% of US citizens suffer from foodborne illnesses each year.

Specific incidents documented in the report include discoveries of diseased poultry meat in food containers, accumulations of pig carcasses on the factory floor and meat riddled with faecal matter. While the investigation resulted in immediate remedial action, campaigners warn there is no guarantee that all non-compliance practices are revealed.

Food and Water Watch senior lobbyist Tony Corbo said: “While the inspectors are able to cite the plants for hundreds of violations per week, I am confident that they are not catching every instance of unsafe practices being committed in these plants.”

The joint investigation involved 47 meat processing plants in the US, including industry giants such as poultry supplier Pilgrim’s Pride and Swift Pork. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regularly inspected around 6,000 plants in the US.

Natural Resources Defence Council senior health officer David Wallinga warned that it is the responsibility of meat producers to eliminate malpractice.

Pilgrim’s Pride has internally conducted 16,000 non-compliance reports covering 36,612 food safety violations over a two year period (2014-2016).

Inspectors reviewing a pork manufacturing plant uncovered a wastage drain partially blocked by a pig’s head. This led to ‘bloody waste water filling the area’. Other blockages have been caused by a build-up of skin over the drains.

“Because of the plugged drains, an insanitary condition was created; the bloody water in the walkway could be splashed and carried throughout the kill floor after employees walked through the puddle,” said the inspector.

Speeding up the production line

Hygiene inspectors warned against new proposals last month,  highlighting that increased numbers of pig carcasses being processed per hour would result in inevitable sanitation breeches. Campaigners have also warned against legislation that would allow manufacturers to decide their own production line speeds. Currently, the legal maximum in the US is 1,106 hogs per hour.

Statistics provided by Food and Water Watch found that 84% of all non-compliance violations occurred in plants that were trialling their own line speeds. This is the same for 73% of all carcass contaminations, and 61% of equipment sanitation breeches.

“We believe that this new system will increase the risk of unsafe products being placed into commerce,” said Corbo.

“FSIS will not require the companies to submit plans in advance for review and it could be years before the agency realises that the food safety plans might not be valid, putting consumers at risk.”

In response, FSIS said that data collected since 1997 said that hog slaughter standards did not diminish in plants trialling their own line speeds compared to plants under the traditional inspection system.

“The claim that industry will perform inspections is false. Under the proposal, FSIS inspectors would continue to conduct 100% carcass-by-carcass inspection; the plant employees would make cuts and present the carcasses and parts to FSIS inspectors for inspection,” said a FSIS investigator.

“Under the proposal, inspectors would conduct more offline food safety tasks that place inspectors in areas of the production process where they can perform verification tasks that have direct impact on, and are the most important to ensure food safety.”

Safeguarding UK meat imports

Sussex University food safety expert Professor Erik Millstone said: “The rates at which outbreaks of infectious food poisoning occur in the US are significantly higher than in the UK, or the EU, and poor hygiene in the meat supply chain is [a] leading cause of food poisoning in the US.”

Former UK shadow environment minister Kerry McCarthy demanded reassurance from the government and the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) that safety standards of imported US meat would not fall as new trade negotiations with the US continue, commenting that: “We cannot allow this to be a race to the bottom. We should insist the US raises its standards, and guarantees food safety, before we are prepared to allow in US meat imports.”