Chewing the fat: EU regulation of desinewed meat threatens UK exports

New EU regulation on the labelling of desinewed meat may be inappropriate and contrary to advice from the UK Food Standards Agency, but British manufacturers have no choice but to comply says Dominic Watkins, senior associate at business law firm DWF.

Dominic Watkins, Senior Associate, DWF

Food quality and safety issues often make for easy headlines and this has been illustrated recently by the UK Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) moratorium on ‘desinewed meat’ (DSM). The FSA was forced to take decisive steps after the EU commission threatened to ban UK exports of meat products if it did not act immediately.

There is no evidence of any safety concerns around the use of DSM as a foodstuff, and the FSA’s press release goes as far as to say that the risk of eating DSM is no greater than for any other piece of meat. Accordingly, it is difficult to understand the reasoning behind the EU’s ruling, which requires all DSM products to be labelled ‘mechanically separated meat’ from April 28.

The FSA describes DSM as being meat from which the sinews and tendons have been removed”. It is produced by processing bones with residual meat attached in a low pressure machine, which removes the remaining meat from the bone to ensure maximum flesh extraction.

The FSA concluded in a document from September 2010, that DSM would fall within the definition of a meat preparation as defined by the EU. It concluded that, although the product had undergone a mechanical procedure, the low pressure process did not appear to “modify the internal muscle fibre structure of the meat”, as required by the EU’s definition, and the end product was therefore, meat.

The FSA also considered that the mechanical process used in DSM production fell short of creating a ‘meat product’.  Meat products are “processed products resulting from the processing of meat or from the further processing of such processed products, so that the cut surface shows that the product no longer has the characteristics of fresh meat.”

It has therefore long been the UK’s position that the use of DSM is lawful, as the muscle fibre of the product remains intact. Accordingly, prior to the FSA’s actions, DSM could be labelled as meat, and included in the meat content of processed products.

One of the biggest safety concerns in this area is the reduction in likelihood of transmitting BSE or similar diseases. There are already significant restrictions on the types of bones that can be used to create DSM. The bones of cattle and sheep for instance, are not permitted, and this restriction together with the general safety requirements should ensure that DSM products are safe.

The EU, having previously accepted the FSA’s stance, now defines DSM as Mechanically Separated Meat (MSM), which is a ‘meat product’.  MSM is defined as “the product obtained by removing meat from flesh-bearing bones after boning or from poultry carcases, using mechanical means resulting in the loss or modification of the muscle fibre structure.”

The difference between the two definitions is that where previously DSM was classed as meat, MSM is not.  As a result it cannot be described or labelled as such and it is anticipated that this change in definition will have a knock-on impact on the saleability and price of DSM.

It is not clear what sparked the EU’s change of position.  In September 2010, when concluding that DSM was legal in the UK, the FSA recognised the risk of a change in direction by the EU. However, at that stage it was not anticipated that any change would be significant.  Nevertheless, nearly two years on, the EU has decided that the UK interpretation is incorrect and has decided to enforce compliance within a timeframe that is almost impossible for industry to comply with.

Ultimately, the UK is left with little choice in the short term but to conform to the ruling. The worst case consequences for non-compliance, a ban of the export of UK meat, is a much graver prospect and one which the FSA and Government will be keen to avoid at all costs.

Click here for further details on DWF.