A BRISTOL slaughterhouse supplying McDonald's with beef was accused in the High Court yesterday of dirty practices.
Pithing rods stabbed into the brains of cattle were used repeatedly without cleaning, said Marja Hovi, the official veterinary surgeon at Alec Jarrett Ltd, a slaughterhouse on the edge of the city.
She was giving evidence for Helen Steel and David Morris, unemployed environmentalists, who are being sued by McDonald's in what is expected to be the longest libel trial in English legal history. It began last June and is expected to run until December. Dubbed the McLibel 2, Ms Steel and Mr Morris are defending themselves because legal aid is not offered in defamation cases. They are accused of handing out defamatory leaflets which criticise the quality of McDonald's food, the company's treatment of workers, and the damage it does to the environment.
Alec Jarrett is one of a number of UK slaughterhouses which supply McKey Foods, the exclusive supplier of McDonald's hamburger patties. In written evidence Ms Hovi, who was trained in Finland, said she was dismissed in April last year after a month when she refused to sign certificates that cows had come from BSE-free herds when insufficient evidence existed.
She said important safeguards protecting carcasses from contamination were not kept. Trolleys filled with the horns, scrotums and faeces-covered feet of animals were routinely wheeled past carcasses whose flesh was exposed.
Carcasses suspected of disease or contamination were kept in the same room as condemned carcasses, she said. The practice was only legal under government regulation if the room was refrigerated, but it was not.
Ms Hovi said it was her job to spot cattle infected with many diseases including tuberculosis, BSE and blood poisoning caused by extreme mastitis, a condition most often affecting older dairy cows culled for slaughter at the plant.
She said carcasses were washed with high pressure water before her inspection, again in breach of government regulations. This could spread pus or faeces, making it invisible to an inspector. "This practice is dangerous as it can lead to the inspectors' missing pathological changes and leads to airborne contamination," she said in written evidence.
Chillers did not keep to the maximum legal temperature of 7C. "They were coming out as high as 16C," she said. In the boning hall cutting boards were warm and sterilisation of knives was inadequate.
Richard Rampton QC for McDonald's complained that he had had no notice of 90 per cent of Ms Hovi's evidence and asked leave to call new witnesses and to cross-examine her at a later time. This was granted.
The hearing continues today.