Ministry investigation into sulphite in raw meat

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The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) says the placement of a story on the investigation at the top of TVNZ’s news bulletin last night may have unnecessarily caused consumers concern that there is some food safety risk associated with fresh meat.

MPI has today clarified its investigation to date has found no widespread problem with the use of preservatives in fresh red meat. The Ministry is conducting an investigation into the suspected use of sulphites in meat by a small number of independent butcheries and groceries in the Auckland area.

“The use of sulphites to prolong the shelf life of fresh meat and freshen up the appearance of greying meat is something that appears to be being undertaken by a small group of “rogue” operators and not mainstream meat suppliers. We targeted these butcheries and grocery stores for further investigation based on our own intelligence gathering.

“We are confident, through conducting our regular food safety compliance activity, that larger retailers including New Zealand’s supermarket chains and reputable, New Zealand-qualified butchers are well aware of the rules and will not be carrying out this practice,” Ministry for Primary Industries Director Animal, and Animal Products, Matthew Stone says.

“MPI will not tolerate flouting of the rules that are in place to ensure New Zealand’s food is safe. The Ministry has a range of legal options at its disposal where evidence is present that this law-breaking is taking place.”

Mr Stone also points out that the issue concerns the handling and retailing of meat in New Zealand domestically and that this is not an issue concerning export meat.

“Consumers need to have confidence, particularly if they are in the small group that have allergies to sulphites, that fresh meat will not have this additive in it.”

Sulphites such as sulphur dioxide are food additives used in a range of foods around the world. In New Zealand its use is controlled by regulation and must be reflected in labelling, which MPI also monitors.

Mr Stone says some initial sampling of fresh meat from 10 Auckland butcheries and grocery stores found the presence of sulphite which is a preservative allowed in processed meat goods (and a range of other foodstuffs) but is not allowed to be added to fresh meat.

He says for this reason, MPI recently carried out sampling of fresh red meat (a range of cuts including mince) from another 27 premises in Auckland.

“We expect to know in a couple of weeks what the true situation is out there. But we need to be clear that the evidence shows that the use of sulphite in fresh meat is not a widespread problem.

“There can be serious consequences for those who break the rules. The incorrect use of additives breaches the Food Standards Code and the Food Act 1981. Under the Act, failure to comply with the Food Standards Code can result in a fine of up to $5000 for an individual or $20,000 for a body corporate.

Background information

  • MPI’s Food Act Officers recently visited a number of butchers and supermarkets in Auckland during an operation to collect samples of raw meat for sulphite analysis
  • This operation relates to local, domestically consumed produce only (i.e nothing to do with export meat products)
  • This was undertaken as part of MPI’s statutory obligation to ensure food safety standards are being met under the Food Act 1981
  • Operations such as this are a regular occurrence and are part of MPI’s ongoing efforts to ensure that food available to NZ consumers is safe
  • Sulphites such as sulphur dioxide are food additives used as a preservative in some foods, including specified meat products, such as some sausages, luncheon meat and manufactured ham
  • Foods containing sulphites can cause serious reactions in certain individuals who are intolerant to them. MPI is concerned about a potential increase in the use of sulphur dioxide and other sulphites in raw meat
  • Sulphate is strictly controlled and additives are only permitted in specified meat products, with maximum permitted levels specified under the Australian/NZ Code
  • Testing of products is currently underway and as such it is too early to say what the levels of compliance were, or whether any action will need to be taken against anyone found to be breaking the rules
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