Richard North, 23/02/2021  

It is difficult to avoid a wry smile when comparing the reports from two different newspapers of Salmonella food poisoning from chicken products in Poland.

The po-faced Guardian headlines its report with "Deadly salmonella outbreak in UK linked to chicken products", and you have to get well into the story before being told that it had been "confirmed that the salmonella originated in Poland", and efforts were being made to identify the farm or farms involved.

In the Mail, by contrast, one is regaled by the headline: "REVEALED: Five people are feared to have died and hundreds more including many children made ill after eating chicken imported from Poland that was contaminated with salmonella in the past year".

As to the detail, we learn that five people are suspected to have died and hundreds more, including children, became seriously ill after eating the contaminated chicken, which has been imported from Poland.

The meat was turned into cheap frozen nuggets and breaded chicken products sold by major supermarkets across the UK over the past year. Some 480 people are known to have fallen ill with salmonella poisoning, with more than one in three becoming so sick they needed hospital treatment.

Although the Mail headline points out that this has been going on for a year, in fact, there have been a rash of salmonella reports in Polish poultry since January 2016 with what is described as a "staggering" uptick in 2019, when the level in that year was close to the total for the previous three years.

Some readers may also be aware that Poland is currently a member of the European Union, which means that the produce is subject to the fabled EU food safety law, including Commission Regulation (EC) No 2073/2005 of 15 November 2005 on microbiological criteria for foodstuffs (as amended).

Interestingly, the EU standard for "meat products made from poultry meat intended to be eaten cooked" is an absence of Salmonella in 25 grams, when sampled in accordance with the specified sampling programme.

Critics of the EU might suggest that this is a bullshit standard as it is unachievable without treating finished products with high concentrations of chlorine – which is, of course, not permitted. Predictably, therefore, the latest report from the European Food Safety Authority shows that Salmonella in poultry is very far from having been eliminated, rendering the microbiological criteria aspirational rather than realistic targets.

Needless to say though, the microbiological criteria apply to imported foods so that, while the limits are observed more in the breach than the observance for intra-Union trade, they can be applied to imported food, whence they become a useful tool for excluding supplies from third countries – such as the UK.

As for the UK, owing to the epic incompetence of the British government which has failed to prepare for the end of the transition period, there are no facilities for inspecting (or sampling) incoming Polish chicken, which is allowed entry unchecked. Not until 1 July of this year will routine checks be carried out, assuming the necessary border control posts have been built, and the staff are available.

Despite the lack of checks, though, the UK import requirements mirror EU law which means that Polish vets at the point of origin should be signing off export health certificates (with their coloured crayons), attesting to, amongst other things, conformity with Regulation (EC) No 2073/2005.

The huge irony of this is that, since accession to the EU, Poland has adopted the EU's antiquated system of veterinary-based food control, whence EU official inspections by the Commission's Food & Veterinary Office have found substandard conditions in multiple poultry production sites. In two plants visited, there were serious structural and hygiene requirements which had not been detected or corrected by any level of authority controls.

The EU's audit team was told the number of official veterinarians involved in official controls of meat establishments was 3,318 in 2018 and had remained constant between 2016 and 2018. However, in the same period the number of permanent official veterinarians had decreased by 141, most of them (90) in the districts, from 2,172 in 2016 to 2,031 in 2018.

As a result, one food safety official had to supervise 45 approved establishments with minimum frequency of controls from one to four times a year and one approved for export to the US requiring one monthly audit/two days and 262 food entities. The official also has to participate in regional level audits of two days every three months and to supervise 30 assistants assigned in the district.

Yet, official veterinarians were paid based on the number of animals inspected or the amount of meat introduced to the cutting plant they supervise. If the establishment is closed down for any reason, they were not paid for this period. That system, it was said, undermined their independence in situations where the required enforcement measures to be taken on the spot would include stopping slaughter operations.

This crass system is the same which prevails in the UK, where contract vets perform as official veterinarians. There are perverse incentives built into the system, where a poor inspection report leads to an increase in supervisory hours, while a very poor score leads to plant closure, depriving the vets (and their employers) of their incomes.

Clearly, the independent, local authority-based system in the UK, which the EU system replaced, would not suffer from these defects.

But, despite the problems report, there are no indications that things are getting at all better. According to the USDA which clears plants for US exports (where chlorine is used in liberal quantities), the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the Polish poultry industry to the brink of crisis.

Although Poland remains the EU's largest single poultry producer, processing 2.5 million tons of poultry meat annually, compared with the EU total of 15.2 million tons, demand from Western European hotels, restaurants and institutions has dropped sharply in the wake of the pandemic, precipitating an across the board price cut, from which the industry has yet to recover.

In addition, Poland has struggled to contain outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, with an OIE report of a million birds having been slaughtered in one farm by the end of 2020, adding to the nine outbreaks to be reported up to January 2020.

Yet, despite an obviously uncontained situation in Poland, the Commission is excluding for no good reason unpurified Class B live bivalve molluscs from the UK – although treated oysters have been successfully shipped.

This has led Defra secretary George Eustice to consider tit-for-tat restrictions on the import of European mineral water and several other food products. Such an action, on its own, would probably be unwise, as it would lose the UK the moral high ground over the Commission exclusion which is almost certainly in breach of the TCA and the WTO SPS Agreement.

However, if Eustice was looking for an entirely legitimate response, he could bring forward import controls to apply to Polish poultry products – entirely justified by the rash of food poisoning reports. The application of Regulation 2073/2005 criteria would, most likely bring imports to a crashing halt – to the delight of UK producers - leaving Eustice with clean hands, and some serious leverage.

And for those looking for Brexit benefits, inside the EU, it would not be possible to apply import checks to contaminated EU produce and nor could we legitimately ban produce which has been so lovingly inspected by underpaid vets working to EU food laws. What's good for the EU goose, the Commission needs to learn, should be good for the UK gander.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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