A quarter of abattoirs 'failing on basic hygiene precautions'
More than a quarter of abattoirs fail to take basic hygiene precautions to prevent contaminated meat reaching butchers and supermarkets, it has been reported.
Consumers could be at risk of acute food poisoning from exposure to E.coli, salmonella or campylobacter due to breaches identified at the slaughterhouses.
Analysis of government audits at 323 abattoirs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by The Observer and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism identified failings at 86 of them.
The breaches, logged during inspections by the Food Standards Agency (FSA), included instances of carcasses touching dirty factory floors while others were splashed with water potentially contaminated with faecal matter.
The newspaper said a whistleblower also reported records being falsified, raising the risk that contaminated meat had entered the food chain.
When animals arrive for slaughter they are often covered in faeces and dirt from farms or transport.
Under safety rules any visibly contaminated meat has to be removed from a carcass.
However an expert who led a review into fatal E.coli outbreaks warned the precaution does not go far enough as microbes invisible to the naked eye could be missed.
Among the bacteria in the gut of animals including cattle is E.coli O157, infection with which can cause severe food poisoning with stomach pain, bloody diarrhoea and kidney failure.
The pathogen killed more 20 people during an outbreak in Scotland in 1996 and a young boy in Wales in 2005.
Professor Hugh Pennington, an eminent microbiologist who chaired inquiries into both outbreaks, said the rate of failure uncovered by the investigation was unacceptable.
"This is basic hygiene. It's not rocket science, it's common sense," he told The Observer.
"The FSA should be coming down on this like a ton of bricks. It's very disappointing this is going on.
"The main risk is E.coli O157, which my review looked into. The consequences can be catastrophic. People died."
The FSA said abattoirs that are continually non-compliant with safety precautions risked having their licences revoked.
"Hygiene failures are not tolerated by the FSA, and robust enforcement action is taken in a risk based and proportionate way," a spokesman said.
"Ultimately if standards are not improving or the risk to public health is high enough, this could mean taking away a premises approval."