Skin-on sheep meat (smokies) - update
Wednesday 14 February 2007
In November 2003, the Food Standards Agency commissioned Bristol University Veterinary School to research into whether it is possible to produce 'skin-on' sheep carcasses safely and hygienically in slaughterhouses.
A final report of this work was given to the Agency in December 2006 and a scientific paper of the main findings has been submitted to a peer-reviewed scientific journal. The report concludes that, under controlled conditions, 'skin-on' sheep meat can be produced hygienically and provides evidence to support the development of a meat inspection protocol.
In conjunction with this, a related piece of work is being carried out to look at the issue of veterinary medicines in relation to 'skin-on' sheep meat. Medicines may be needed for sheep to control, for example, particular parasites and flies, which if untreated can be a welfare issue. Withdrawal periods ensure that any residues in meat from animals, which have been treated with the medicines, are below a 'safe' limit. Withdrawal periods for sheep meat may have been calculated without including skin as it is currently removed on all sheep meat in the UK. This study is looking at how the withdrawal periods were calculated and is nearing completion.
The findings from these two areas of work are still to be evaluated by the Food Standards Agency, and it is therefore too soon to speculate if the Agency will be in a position to approach the European Commission to have the law changed, in order to permit the production of skin-on sheep carcases in approved slaughterhouses in the UK.
There is no prospect of the law being changed in the short term. Consequently, the production of smokies in the UK remains unlawful and the Food Standards Agency will continue to work with local authorities to ensure that the law is enforced.
Smokies are produced by burning the fleece off sheep carcases (often with a blowtorch) which imparts a strong smoked flavour to the meat. The production of smokies for sale for human consumption is illegal because the skin is still attached to the meat and the animals are slaughtered in unlicensed premises without official supervision. This is contrary to EU law and the UK's meat hygiene regulations.
Smokies may pose a significant risk to public health for a number of reasons:
- the animals are slaughtered in unlicensed premises (often disused farm buildings) without TSE controls being applied under the supervision of the Meat Hygiene Service. TSE controls include the removal of specified risk material which are the parts of the animal most likely to carry TSE infectivity
- the unsanitary and unhygienic conditions in which animals are normally slaughtered may cause contamination by faecal material resulting in the presence of harmful bacteria such as E.coli and Salmonella
- there are concerns about potential residues from veterinary medicines applied to the skin or fleece
There are also concerns about animal welfare because of the conditions under which the animals may be slaughtered.
One way of combating the current illegal trade in smokies would be to make their production legal in licensed slaughterhouses, and thus enable consumers and the farming community to benefit from the apparent demand for the product.