Can meat inspection help with animal health & welfare analysis?

Meat inspection is a hot topic in this area. Since the new meat inspection legislation came into effect in B.C. in 2007, local farmers and politicians have been pressuring the government to allow the sale of meat slaughtered on-farm (which would require a class D/E licences, without getting into the finer details of the legislation). In response to the pressure, the province established a pilot project last February that allowed North Okanagan farmers to apply for a Class E licence. According to local stakeholders, since the establishment of the Meat Inspection Regulation, the number of local meat producers has decreased from 1200 to 300. Just today, a newspaper article came out lamenting the fact that one year in, no licences have been issued pursuant to this pilot project.

The local farmers and other stakeholders all focus on the need for sustainable meat (beef and poultry) production in an agricultural-based economy, allowing consumers to have access to local products. There is seldom talk about the benefits of the meat inspection program itself in ensuring food safety, and even less often, talk of the benefits of meat inspection to animal health and welfare.

In analyzing published reports associated with meat inspection programmes in Europe (which involve both ante and post mortem parts), researchers found a lack of data indicating what, and how many, diseases were found in food animals. Further, it was unclear whether the meat inspection programmes in Europe were actually successful (and to what degree) in identifying these animal health conditions. 

Given the lack of concrete data from peer-reviewed journal articles, the researchers relied on expert opinions and knowledge of the types of conditions they were studying. Using this methodology, they found that the EU meat inspection programmes were highly competent at determining "clinical and/or pathological signs in affected animals", but fairly useless at identifying "early or subclinical cases". A visual-only inspection of the meat (that is, post mortem only) did not significantly detract from the programme's ability to identify most of the conditions of concern.

The researchers also looked at whether the existing meat inspection programme in the EU would be sufficient for identifying animal welfare concerns (i.e. identifying the types of diseases and conditions that aren't necessarily associated with human health, but are associated with animal health). They found that, so long as data was collected and appropriate recorded and shared, the existing programme "could provide an efficient means of identifying producers in need of animal health advice". 

In essence, the study showed that ante mortem inspections are much needed for identifying animal health and welfare issues, but post mortem visual inspections are adequate for ensuring public health and safety, with one important caveat: the visual-only inspection was inadequate for identifying tuberculosis. 

While it was identified that the meat inspection programme could have added benefits in ensuring animal health and welfare if data was collected and kept, the researchers do point out the potential economic struggles with doing so. Meat inspection is not a cheap business to be in (see: article on the CFIA leaving the business), and so adding additional factors into the inspection focus is unlikely to take place without additional resources. In essence, it's similar to the beach sampling: there is more that could be done, but the resources just aren't there to make it happen.

Source: Stärk, K., Alonso, S., Dadios, N., Dupuy, C., Ellerbroek, L., Georgiev, M., ... Lindberg, A. (2014, 12). Strengths and weaknesses of meat inspection as a contribution to animal health and welfare surveillance.Food Control, 39, 154-162.

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