Poland Acknowledges Export of Tainted Beef to 13 EU Members
In a widening scandal over food safety standards in the European Union, the Polish government acknowledged that it exported 2.7 metric tons (2.98 short/US tons) of beef sourced from a slaughterhouse that was filmed illegally slaughtering cattle. At press time, Pawel Niemczuk, Poland’s Chief Veterinary Officer, confirmed that the tainted meat had been shipped to 13 EU partners while various EU member states’ health and food safety agencies have taken cautionary measures — including withdrawal and destruction of suspect beef — to contain the spread of the meat and prevent a food safety crisis.
Poland is the EU’s seventh largest beef producer, with the most recent statistic reported to the European Commission (EC, the EU’s executive arm) being about 558,580 metric tons (615,729 short/US tons) of “bovine animals (calves, bullocks, bulls, heifers and cows) slaughtered in slaughterhouses and on the farm, whose meat is declared fit for human consumption” in 2017.
Additionally, Poland exports over 80 percent of its beef in the form of mainly chilled and frozen products, with the largest export destination being the EU. In 2017, Polish beef exports of 473,000 metric tons (521,400 short/US tons) were valued at 1.58 billion euros (1.81 billion USD), a steep increase in volume of nearly 20 percent from the year prior. Owing to relatively low per capita domestic beef consumption, meatpacking and other meat-related industries in Poland are highly dependent on exports as their main source of revenue.
On Jan. 27, 2019, Polish television news channel TVN24 aired footage, covertly recorded by reporters from the investigative show Superwizjer who had gone undercover at a slaughterhouse in central Poland for almost three weeks. The footage appeared to show extremely sick cows being transported, abused, and slaughtered in the dead of night without veterinarians present — a violation of basic food safety standards.
In addition, the slaughterhouse workers were reportedly ordered to “mark the meat as healthy, and basically to make it prettier” to conceal any indication of sickness in the slaughtered cattle. The undercover reporters also claimed that the facility’s designated veterinarian would instead show up the following morning, mark off the carcasses as safe, and sign off on certifications without a thorough or proper inspection of the processed meat.
As the vast majority of EU members states have abolished most border and customs controls to guarantee the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor in the EU-wide single market, once a relevant member state has certified a product’s quality and compliance with EU and national standards, the product will not be inspected again before being shipped out to suppliers and consumers across the bloc.
While Chief Veterinary Officer Niemczuk ordered immediate inspections to be carried out “in close cooperation” with the Polish National Police (Policja), Road Transport Inspection Office, and the National Public Prosecutor’s Office on Jan. 29, the Polish government on the same day notified the EU’s bloc-wide Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) about “veterinary controls not properly carried out for bovine meat from Poland presumably unfit for human consumption.”
By Jan. 31, Polish authorities had identified several companies at the core of the scandal that sold a combined amount of about ten metric tons (11 short/US tons) of suspect beef, 2.7 metric tons (2.98 short/US tons) of which had gone to food processing plants in ten EU states. Warsaw announced that “the produce is being voluntarily withdrawn” while maintaining that meat in Polish shops were safe for human consumption and the situation “was an individual case” — statements in line with domestic meat industry efforts to downplay the impact of the tainted food scare.
However, fellow affected EU member states have proceeded to take action to identify, isolate, and destroy tainted Polish meat, although several governments warned that consumers had already been exposed to the suspect beef in at least three countries.
Slovakia confirmed the presence of tainted meat at three of its food processing plants and summoned the Polish ambassador to Bratislava while Lithuania announced a ban on 82 kg (181 lbs) of suspect Polish meat from entering the market on Feb. 1, thus raising the number of affected EU states to 12.
The EC announced the same day that a team of health inspectors would be sent to Poland by the following week “to assess the situation on the ground,” with European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis stating the main objective of the team was “to trace and withdraw from the market all of the products that originated from” the slaughterhouse in question.
Poland’s Ministry of Agriculture has confirmed that it has shuttered the slaughterhouse that started the current scandal and maintained that “all meat produced by this plant has been confiscated and examined, and presented ‘no biological threats.’” Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Jan Krzysztof Ardanowski, has promised “no leniency” for perpetrators of illegal cattle slaughtering practices and welcomed immediate legal and procedural changes to guarantee the safety of Polish food exports, in order to restore confidence in Polish food consumers.
At press time, per the RASFF notification filed by Warsaw over the scandal, the affected EU countries (apart from Poland) are Czechia, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden.