A requirement under EU law
Directive 96/23 EC requires that all EU Member States must carry out surveillance to see that their home-produced foods of animal origin are safe. In the UK, the National Surveillance Scheme covers: red meat, poultry meat, wild and farmed game, farmed fish, milk, honey and eggs. Annexes to the Directive set down the number of samples that Member States must take, based on forecast production. The Directive also lays down broad parameters on the groups of substances to be surveyed.
1. Planning the programme
The Planning Meeting
The Veterinary Medicines Directorate organises a meeting of interested parties in September. This is to agree the specific substances in each group of medicines which are to be included in the surveillance programme. The parties also discuss how many samples should be taken. Parties involved in considering the draft plan are:
The VRC considers and approves the plan.
The plan must be approved in Brussels
Officials from the European Commission (DG–SANCO) and all the Member States examine the plan in EU Residue Working Group meetings to ensure that it complies with Directive 96/23/EC.
The VMD puts the plan into action.
The plan is entered onto the 'Residues in Meat' (RIM) database. This is the key database that allows the VMD to track the progress of samples and have an audit trail to identify the producers. The database is used to generate individually numbered sample requests. This is done in a way so that all registered abattoirs should have some samples taken each year. Samples are also targeted by officers in the field and by specific requests from the VMD identifying producers who have had 'positives' in the past and/or where particular problems are suspected.
2. Samples are collected
Authorised officers of the different government agencies collect the samples on behalf of the VMD. For example, the FSA have officers at all abattoirs for meat hygiene checks; they also take samples when requested, or if they have suspicions about an animal. Defra's Animal Health (AH) officers visit farms for a number of reasons, such as tuberculin testing of cattle. They will often use these visits to collect samples and inspect medicines records. So, producers know that the AH are visiting, but would not be aware when a sample or samples are to be taken from their animals or feed etc. Each sample is secured with a tamper proof seal and labelled. This allows it to be traced back to its origin. This traceability for the each sample is crucial to allow any follow-up action to be taken. In recent years, over 30,000 samples have been collected annually and over 35,000 analyses completed.
What constitutes a sample?
A sample will vary depending on the residue sought and species, also whether the sample is to be collected from live animals on farms or from abattoirs. It will often mean a portion of liver or kidney of an animal, but could involve collecting blood, urine, faeces or the retinas of animals. Usually, the sample is selected as the most sensitive for finding the particular residue. Milk samples are collected from individual farms to reduce the dilution of any residues with milk from other farms. A sample of eggs consists of a dozen eggs from the same batch.
3. Samples are analysed
The sealed samples are sent to laboratories run by Fera, where they are entered onto the computer system. This ensures that the progress of the samples can be monitored and that there is an audit trail back to the producer. Samples are stored deepfrozen to avoid deterioration. Similar samples are usually analysed in batches, which can delay individual samples. But as the analytical equipment is not set up for a single sample only, it significantly reduces the costs of analysis.
The laboratory will normally perform a screening test to see if the particular residue or residues are present. If a potential residue is detected, the sample will then be subject to a confirmatory analysis to definitively identify the residue and usually measure the concentration.
4. Initial Assessment of the Results
The results are presented at the VRC meetings during the year. This allows members to comment and ask questions. All of the results that are above the relevant MRL or Action Level are passed to the Food Standards Agency. Toxicologists at the VMD and FSA can give a scientific opinion on the relevance of any residues for human health.
A follow-up investigation is carried out into every sample with a residue above the MRL or Action Level. This tries to find the cause of the residue and gives advice to the farmer to avoid residues in the future. If there is suspicion that the farmer has used a banned substance, or if a particularly high concentration of an authorised medicine has been found, an Investigation Officer from Defra's Legal Department performs the visit. A veterinarian or Fish Health Officer may accompany them to give expert advice. Where there is sufficient evidence, a prosecution is considered.
6 & 7.Results Assessed by VRC and Advice Given
The VRC receives updates on the results of the National Surveillance Scheme at each committee meeting and when appropriate makes recommendations for further actions that the VMD and FSA could take. All the Reports to the Committee are published on the VRC website. You can also find the results in the VMD's quarterly 'MAVIS' newsletter and on their website. An annual summary of the results is available from both the VRC and VMD websites.