A follow-up audit in Poland of meat controls has found the situation has gotten better but there is still room for improvement.
The audit in March and April 2019 by DG Sante, the European Commission’s unit for food safety and health, covered the official controls over slaughter of bovines and animal traceability in Poland.
An initial audit in February 2019 followed a broadcast on Polish television of a slaughterhouse showing cows unable to stand, referred to as downer cows, or that were injured. It found serious shortcomings in implementation of controls in the slaughterhouse and overall supervision, staffing issues, and problems with traceability of animals.
Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) updates recorded meat was sent to 15 countries. Officials from two nations said meat from the Polish slaughterhouse was consumed before authorities were informed of a possible risk.
Follow-up audit findings
Polish authorities submitted an action plan after this audit and the follow-up visit found steps had been taken thanks to efforts from the official veterinarians and Veterinary Inspection unit. As part of this plan, the audit team saw evidence that instructions to inspect bovine slaughterhouses were followed. The 162 identified high risk slaughterhouses were inspected and deficiencies found.
However, issues were identified around resources, which jeopardize effective functioning of the control system and authorities’ capability to enforce implementation of relevant legislation. DG Sante said as long as staff issues are not addressed, the sustainability of actions proposed and taken remains questionable.
There is little feedback from the police and Prosecutor’s Office on ongoing investigations. The lack of collaboration reduces the chances to detect further non-compliances, to link different cases, and hinders prevention and correction of offenses, officials say.
The second audit included a large, three small, and one bovine slaughterhouse approved for the national market and one independent cutting plant involved in the recall, as well as two cattle dealers and a rendering plant.
Operators of one slaughterhouse, initially part of the audit itinerary, told officials that no slaughter would take place from April 1 to 3, 2019. However, investigation of records by the audit team revealed that was false as slaughter did occur on April 1 and the same number of animals were slaughtered as would normally happen in a whole week. This suggests the company attempted to avoid being included in the audit, officials said. Authorities issued a non-compliance note.
A people problem
There is a substantial outflow of official staff and recruitment of new employees is problematic partly because of relatively low wages, according to the audit report. The number of permanent veterinary staff has dropped from 2016 to 2018 by 141 official veterinarians (OVs). Protests by the trade union of veterinary service staff were ongoing during the audit against the working conditions and low salary.
Official veterinarians also have other priorities which affect capability to supervise the increasing number of authorized veterinarians, who are private practitioners performing official duties. The number of authorized veterinarians (AVs) remained stable from 3,320 in 2016 to 3,318 in 2018 despite a growing production and increased duties and responsibilities.
Remuneration for authorized veterinarians is directly related to throughput of establishments they serve. In high throughput sites, they earn much more than officials performing the same duties at low throughput plants.
Net salaries of OVs employed by the District Veterinary Inspectorates range between €350 ($379) and €550 ($595) per month which are lower than the average wage in Poland of around €1,200 ($1,300).
In a high capacity slaughterhouse visited with a slaughter speed of up to 35 animals per hour, each of the five appointed AVs received €2,200 ($2,400) gross for March. At the other end of the scale, an AV in a small low capacity slaughterhouse received €3.80 ($4.10) for a 90-minute presence during slaughter of a single bovine.
The audit team said this situation has implications which may impact their performance of controls and independence, as well as the avoidance of conflict of interest. Quality, consistency and impartiality of controls are not ensured and the required level of supervision by official staff cannot be met.
“A high throughput is a disincentive to intervene and enforce corrective measures which lower that throughput, while a very low throughput is an incentive to let other, better remunerated activities prevail over official controls,” authorities reported.
Polish authorities said a request from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development has led to additional funds for new jobs and salary increases at the Veterinary Inspection being made available.
At the time of the audit, legislation was planned to strengthen supervision over slaughter of animals and the safety of products of animal origin. Rules around the amount of pay linked to production volume of a slaughterhouse were also going to be changed.
Inspection fees issue
Polish authorities charge inspection fees which are lower than the minimum in EU Regulation No. 882/2004. This arguably provides an unfair economic advantage to the Polish meat industry and limits financial resources available to the Veterinary Inspection, according to DG Sante.
For adult bovines, fees charged per animal slaughtered are 40 to 60 percent lower, depending on capacity of the slaughterhouse. Estimates suggest the Veterinary Inspection could be deprived of at least €14 million ($15.1 million) annually. Fees for poultry are in line with the minimum set in EU regulation.
The audit team said more revenue from fees would help address the pay issues and make the job more attractive for veterinarians to occupy the vacant official posts. Increased revenue would also allow remuneration to authorized veterinarians in very low throughput slaughterhouses, which would mitigate any conflict of interest.
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