Badger Cull and the TB Meat Scandal

In 2013, a Sunday Times story revealed that meat contaminated with bovine TB (bTB) had passed into the food chain, via the government. Care for the Wild commented on the story as it has implications for the badger cull:

  • A key pro-cull argument is that human safety is at risk. But if that is the case, why is the government playing a role in putting infected meat into the food chain?
  • If the meat is not dangerous, why do several supermarkets refuse to take it?
  • Farmers claim compensation for cattle slaughtered because of bTB. But are they also being paid for those same cattle to go into the food chain?

Below we look at the key facts of the TB Meat debate.

TB Meat – Key Facts

  • Food Chain – It is widely assumed by the public and the media that TB cattle are slaughtered and destroyed, but in fact, (based on figures provided by the Animal Health Veterinary Laboratory) over 88% of the 28,000 TB cows slaughtered in England in 2012 entered the food chain – that’s over 20,000 TB infected cattle each year entering the food chain, any of which could be on your plate. 
  • Traceability – this infected meat is not labelled as coming from TB cattle and there is no traceability system in place. This is according to information provided by the Food Standards Agency under a Freedom of Information request.
  • Control of TB Meat – DEFRA controls the trade in TB Meat as part of the Government’s TB compensation scheme. It buys cattle that have been identified as being infected with TB once they have been slaughtered. The infected meat has only to go through a visual inspection system – based on the number of lesions seen – even if the carcus has one visible lesion it is approved for sale as food. Then, the meat is sold to trading companies who sell or process the meat for the food chain. This business generated around £12 million for the UK Treasury in 2012 which is set against the approx £40 million paid to farmers under the TB compensation scheme.
  • Safety controls – despite the trebling of the number of TB cattle entering the food chain over the last decade, the Government has still not acted on the advice of the FSA Microbiological Food Safety Committee to reduce the risk to the public of consuming TB meat by:
    • Placing TB meat in cold storage and taking culture tests to trace TB lesions not visible to human eye
    • Heat treating the meat to kill of all traces of TB before entering the food chain
  • Risk to public health – although the risk is very small, you can catch TB from eating raw or undercooked meat from a TB infected animal. In countries such as the United States and Germany clear labelling rules apply to TB meat and cooking instructions state it should not be consumed in a raw undercooked state. Many people do eat their meat rare in the UK.
  • Where is TB meat in the food chain? DEFRA and the FSA have confirmed they keep no record of where TB meat is in the food chain. Most of the major food retailers have confirmed they would not sell TB meat as this is not acceptable to their customers, but as no records are kept there seems to be no guarantee that it isn’t being served in schools, hospitals and more each day.
  • Won’t this mean people will want to kill badgers even more? Definitely not, in fact – quite the opposite. This gives absolutely no justification to the badger cull, and severely undermines the government’s credibility on this whole matter. The government has claimed that the cull is partly being done to protect human health – but by putting TB meat into the food chain, they are therefore directly putting people at risk. But if they say that the risk to humans is zero or minimal – then this completely negates the original argument.