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Standards in meat processing explained

Posted: 9 March 2006 | Emma West, Meat Industry Inspection Specialist, EFSIS | No comments yet

The meat industry has, deservedly or not, been the subject of much adverse media comment in recent years. Recognised standards, inspected by independent third party auditors, are a key tool in building and maintaining consumer confidence. This article examines how standards work in the modern meat processing sector.

The meat industry has, deservedly or not, been the subject of much adverse media comment in recent years. Recognised standards, inspected by independent third party auditors, are a key tool in building and maintaining consumer confidence. This article examines how standards work in the modern meat processing sector.

The meat industry has, deservedly or not, been the subject of much adverse media comment in recent years. Recognised standards, inspected by independent third party auditors, are a key tool in building and maintaining consumer confidence. This article examines how standards work in the modern meat processing sector.

There has been criticism of the industry under a wide range of headings: animal welfare, hygiene standards, processing methods, product formulation and false/misleading claims. Given the amount of attention the industry attracts it is perhaps no surprise that there are a large number of standards covering the production of meat and meat products.

Standards generally fall into two categories: generic standards or product specific standards. Generic standards are standards that may be used by all sectors of the food industry, for example, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standard – Food, or the International Food Standard (IFS). Product specific standards are standards that are only relevant to certain products, for example, British Charter Quality Ham or Bacon.

Standards are used by meat processors for a number of reasons:

  • Many pro-active processors want to have confidence in the products being produced; the production environment; methods employed and the in-house quality management system
  • They may also wish to use a logo or make a claim about a product which requires verification / participation in a scheme
  • Participation in a recognised scheme may also provide the processor with an enhanced due diligence defence
  • It may be a condition of supply – many retailers specify that in order to supply own label products the processor must have an inspection and maintain current certification to a specified standard
  • The retailer may also wish to display a logo on the end product or make claims about a product that requires verification
  • Many processors have experienced the benefit of using a third party with expertise in a particular area of the food industry to reduce the burden of auditing their suppliers. They have, therefore, passed the requirement on to their suppliers to be inspected and maintain certification against an appropriate standard. In most cases this is seen as a positive step as it helps to reduce the number of customer technical visits to the processor, allowing the retailer or further processor to focus on raw material quality, finished product quality and new product development
  • Where logos are used whole chain assurance may be required

What is whole chain assurance?

Whole chain assurance provides consumers with confidence in the quality of livestock foods and their methods of production. It is an integrated approach where all stages of the chain are assessed to defined standards appropriate to the stage of the production process, from farm to retail pack. Whole chain assurance requires processors to have robust traceability systems and ensures that interfaces are in place between the various systems that may exist throughout the chain. For example, where a logo is applied to a pack of finished product, the end processor needs to ensure that raw materials are purchased from a cutting plant participating in the relevant scheme and that raw material purchased is eligible. The cutting plant is responsible for ensuring that raw materials are purchased from an abattoir participating in the relevant scheme and that the product purchased is eligible. The abattoir is responsible for ensuring that product supplied to cutting plants and further processors only originates from animals that resided on farms from the schemes list of recognised and approved farm assurance schemes. The abattoir is also responsible for ensuring that approved hauliers were used to transport livestock to the abattoir.

There are a wide number of standards available to the meat processing industry:

Generic Standards

British Retail Consortium (BRC) Global Standard – Food

Work on the BRC Global Standard first began in 1996, when UK retailers realised that, on the issue of food safety, there were many advantages to sharing experience and developing robust systems together. The first issue of the BRC Global Standard – Food was published in 1998. Issue 4 of the standard was published in January 2005 for implementation on July 1 2005. The standard applies to the full range of food products: primary and further processing of red and white meat and meat products; dairy products including whole eggs, beverages, ready to eat or heat food product; ambient stable foods including dried goods, bakery products and food ingredients. The standard requires: the adoption and implementation of Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), a documented and effective quality management system; the control of factory environment standards; products, processes and personnel. Certification bodies offering certification against this standard must be accredited to EN45011. Inspections are carried out either every six or twelve months, depending on the outcome of the inspection. Companies that achieve a certificate of conformity are also graded (A to D) depending on the number and nature of non-conformances raised at the time of the inspection.

International Food Standard – Standard for Auditing Retailer (and Wholesaler) Branded Food Products

The IFS Standard was developed by German retailers to provide a basis for evaluating private label suppliers. The current version of the standard (version 4, January 2004) has been adopted by the French Retailer and Wholesaler Federation (FCD); there has also been a significant amount of interest in the standard from other European retailers. Like the BRC standard, the IFS standard covers the full range of products produced within the industry. The clauses contained within the standard are very similar to the BRC standard; however, the Operating Protocol for the standard is considerably different. Certification bodies offering certification against this standard must also be accredited to EN45011. Inspections are carried out every twelve or eighteen months depending on the outcome of the inspection / previous inspection. Companies that achieve a certificate are issued a certificate at either Higher Level or Foundation Level. Results of inspections, along with a copy of the audit report and a copy of the action plan completed by the auditee after the inspection, are loaded on to the IFS web portal. This gives the inspected company the ability to make their report available to retailers or specifers that have registered with IFS.

Product specific standards

Assured British Meat (ABM) Beef and Lamb Standard

This standard is owned by Assured British Meat and is aimed at beef and lamb processors (abattoirs, cutting plants and packing plants). As a stand-alone inspection this standard is less onerous than the BRC standard as there is less emphasis on Quality Management Systems making it an ideal standard for the smaller processor to achieve. It can also be used as a stepping-stone for working towards BRC certification. Many processors will have a combined BRC and ABM inspection. The core elements of the ABM standard are:

  • Traceability
  • Raw material sourcing
  • Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP)
  • Product and process control
  • Factory environment standards
  • Personnel

Participants of this scheme are able to apply to Assured Food Standards (AFS) to use the Red Tractor logo and to the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX) to use the Quality Standard Beef and Lamb marks. As the EBLEX marks are Quality Standard marks, processors wishing to use either the beef or lamb mark will also be subject to a product quality assessment to ensure that labelled product meets the specifications defined by EBLEX. Product labelled with these logos must be from an approved farm assured source. Participants must be able to demonstrate a robust traceability system to ensure integrity of the whole supply chain. Plants participating in the scheme are required to challenge their own traceability systems on a regular basis, a thorough traceability will also be carried out by the Certification Body at the time of the annual inspection. In addition the logo owners commission regular traceability challenges from retail pack back to farm, to ensure that the supply chain is intact and to check integrity of the use of the logo.

British Quality Assured Pork (BQAP)

This standard is aimed at pork processors (abattoirs, cutting plants and packing plants). The core elements are similar to those of the ABM standard. Participants of this scheme may apply to the British Pig Executive (BPEX) to use the Quality Standard pork logo. Participants have a full annual inspection and a six monthly follow-up to assess corrective action taken to close out non-conformances raised at the annual inspection. At the follow-up inspection the site’s own regular traceability exercises will also be reviewed and a full traceability challenge will be carried out to ensure that the mark is only being applied to eligible product. This standard also requires full chain assurance: the packing plant must be BQAP approved; the cutting plant must be BQAP approved; the abattoir must be BQAP approved and the pigs must come from an approved farm assured source and be transported to the abattoir by approved hauliers.

Charter Quality ham and bacon

This standard is aimed at sites processing ham and bacon. It is a requirement of this scheme that participants hold a current certificate of conformity against the BRC standard. Generally, participants of this scheme are also members of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA). Inspections are carried out quarterly, with at least one of the inspections being combined with a BRC inspection. As it is a requirement that sites hold BRC certification, the Charter Quality Inspections then focus on traceability of raw materials, ensuring that the pork is sourced from an approved farm assured source and that the finished products meet the scheme product specifications in terms of product formulation, confirmation and quality. Inspections also ensure that good standards of hygiene and housekeeping are being maintained and that the plant is upholding their obligation to maintain conformance to the BRC standard.

Beef labelling

The Beef Labelling Scheme applies to all fresh and frozen beef and veal at all stages of the production chain. The scheme comprises two elements:

Compulsory beef labelling

Fresh and frozen beef and veal is required by legislation to be labelled with the following compulsory information:

  • A reference number or code linking meat on sale to the original animal or group of animals from which the meat was derived
  • The country of birth and the country of rearing
  • The country of slaughter with plant licence number
  • The country of cutting with plant licence number(s)

Compulsory information is not subject to verification by an approved third party body, local authorities and government inspectors enforce these labelling rules.

Voluntary beef labelling

The Beef Labelling Scheme controls the voluntary labelling of processors at all levels of the supply chain from abattoir to retailer. All non-compulsory information about the origin, method of production or characteristics of beef, or animal from which it is derived requires Government approval under the Beef Labelling Scheme. The scheme requires processors to establish a traceability system and to employ a recognised independent third party to verify the information on the label. Traceability is the key requirement of the scheme.

Scottish schemes

Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) is the body tasked with promoting Scotch Beef, Scotch Lamb and Specially Selected Pork on behalf of the Scottish red meat industry and developing the brand to the advantage of both farmers and processors.

SFQC (Scottish Food Quality Certification) are responsible for certifying and administering the Scotch Quality Assurance Scheme. Assessors conduct inspection of members’ farms, animal feeds, hauliers, auction marts, abattoirs, cutting and packing plants to ensure compliance to the standards. Once suppliers are approved they are then able to use the Scotch mark/logo. The approval establishes that Scotch beef, pork and lamb consumers can be confident that the ‘gate to plate’ chain is intact.

Common areas of non-conformance – BRC and IFS standards

Trend analysis carried out on the two generic standards shows that the highest number of non-conformances are raised under factory environment standards. Non-conformances generally comprise of minor damage to walls, floor, ceiling, equipment or poor process flow / factory design leading to an increased risk of cross contamination. This is particularly true in primary processing sites where there must be suitable segregation of clean and dirty operations.

The second highest number of non-conformances are found under the quality management system section. Non-conformances include: quality manuals not covering the full scope of the standard; procedures for processes critical to safety, quality and legality being incomplete or not available and inadequate internal audit systems. Traceability and management of incidents, product withdrawal and product recall also falls within the heading of quality management systems. In terms of traceability, common non-conformances raised related to: poor identification of work in progress, loss of traceability due to incompatibility of the in-house traceability system and the raw material suppliers traceability system and traceability not being maintained for minor ingredients such as herbs, flavouring mixes, added fat, casings or primary packaging. There is often confusion between carrying out a traceability exercise and carrying out a mock recall exercise. When asked whether a site has carried out a test of the recall system, many sites present a traceability exercise. Whilst it may be a comprehensive exercise covering identification of all product produced and the current location of the product (on-site, off-site at a cold store or delivered to the customer retail distribution centre), there is rarely the necessary accompanying commentary. This is required to make detailed reference to a mock scenario and describe the steps followed to carry out the exercise and the ability of the procedure to identify, locate and reconcile all affected product and review the associated contact lists (including out of hour contacts) for key site personnel, customers and local authorities.

The next area where non-conformances are commonly raised is under the HACCP section of the standard. Non-conformances relate to risk assessments not being available or the processor not being able to demonstrate assessment of the likely occurrence of a hazard or the severity of any adverse health effects if the hazard were to occur. Where this systematic step has not been carried out, it is often observed that hazards have not been clearly identified in terms of being either of a microbiological, chemical or physical nature – often the cause of the hazard is recorded instead. Risk assessments are important to establish that the processor’s HACCP system is based on Codex Alimentarius as required by the BRC and IFS standards and also to ensure that, for due diligence purposes, all potential hazards have been identified and risk assessed. A significant number of non-conformances raised under the HACCP section relate to validation and verification. Processors are not always able to demonstrate that the multidisciplinary HACCP team have verified the process flow diagram; Codex recommends that flows be verified on each shift. Where diagrams have not been verified important process steps are often found to be missing. Sites also collect and collate useful information from various system outputs; for example microbiological and, where appropriate, chemical analysis of part processed or finished product, results of hygiene swabs, analysis of customer complaints, in-house non-conformities and non-conformances identified during internal audits. Often this information is not effectively used to verify that critical control points are effective and remain under control.

Common areas of non-conformance – product specific schemes

Traceability is central to the aforementioned schemes; therefore, similar non-conformances to those mentioned above are also commonly raised during product specific scheme inspections. As scheme inspections generally require verification of claims / logos, the traceability requirement may be more specific. For example; rather than providing traceability back to the day of kill, a product specific scheme may require traceability back to a small batch of animals to verify farm assurance status, a specific method of production (maturation period, method of hanging) or breed of animal (Aberdeen Angus, Hereford).

Common non-conformances raised during an abattoir inspection include:

  • Insufficient detail in the Animal Welfare Policy with respect to emergency procedures. For example: action to be taken in event of fire, flood and escaped animal
  • Pre-planned arrival system not implemented or not being effectively managed
  • Staff training not documented; evidence of animal welfare training not available
  • Stocking density information not available for a pens
  • Monitoring of the effectiveness of stunning not recorded
  • Calibration and maintenance records not available for stunning equipment
  • Knife sterilisers not functioning correctly; temperature too low or boiling and producing excessive condensation
  • Carcase contamination evident after the final inspection point
  • Contact points between platforms and carcases
  • Critical control points identified on the HACCP plan but no record of monitoring available

Cutting and Packing plant non-conformances usually relate minor hygiene and housekeeping issues, fabrication issues and working practices.

There are a number of inspection standards available to the meat processing industry. These standards are reviewed and updated on a regular basis to ensure that they are current in terms of legislative requirements and industry best practice.

Standard owners generally require Certification Bodies carrying out inspections and certification to be accredited to EN45011, the European Standard for Product Certification. This provides scheme participants with the confidence that Certification Bodies operate independently and with impartiality and have procedures in place to cover the processes of inspection and certification to ensure a quality service, consistent approach and appropriate application of the inspection standard. Regular assessments of Certification Bodies are carried out by UKAS (United Kingdom Accreditation Service).

Through participation in meat sector schemes, retailers and processors can have confidence that meat processors meet high standards and industry best practice. The ultimate consumer can have confidence in the integrity of the supply chain and production methods employed where logos are used on the retail pack. To summarise, the meat industry operates a high level of self regulation through a variety of quality assurance schemes ensuring standards are maintained at all levels throughout the food production chain.

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