LONDON (Reuters) - Governments need to give greater consideration to food safety when making their decisions about how long animals are kept on feedlots, regulatory experts say, as tightening meat industry labeling rules could result in further risk to consumers.

A pig is held in a pig sty at slaughter in a fairground fair in Hanke (Rhineland-Palatinate) March 2, 2011. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender

The European Union has been scrutinizing the shelf-life of livestock for some time, looking at whether it should be governed by different rules to those already applied to Europe’s producers of all other food.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, earlier this year proposed tightening the rules on the protection of consumers from food that could be compromised because of harmful bacteria if it remained on the surface of certain food products for a long time.

They also said that any rules could affect meat producers, adding that it should be the industry’s choice how long animals are kept on feedlots as they would make part of the risk assessment.

A complete blanket ban on using products like highly degradable plastic as coatings on beef, pork or lamb would have major implications for industry, although a restriction might be less damaging for consumer confidence, said Peter Oswald, director of environmental management at the European Meat and Livestock Commission.

“It isn’t done yet,” Oswald said. “We have to look at the market implications, and sometimes the market may not respond well to such a decision.”

“I haven’t seen a reaction from pork producers in Sweden so far because they are used to this, but maybe that won’t remain the case for long,” he added.

Pork producers have estimated it would cost as much as 34 billion Swedish crowns ($3.8 billion) to change existing production systems to enable them to meet the Commission’s proposed EU guidelines on product labeling.

Pork producers argue that non-biodegradable substances like polyurethane and resin degrade in minutes on the environment and do not pose major risk for humans in the long run, and are more suited to prolonging production times.

Such materials are also widely used in slaughterhouses as they can be mechanically eliminated in products.

The animal health and welfare advice offered by the European Food Safety Authority is “broad enough” to have a bearing on decision-making, Oswald said.

Agriculture is an economic priority in the EU but regulatory uncertainty is creating uncertainty about investment plans, said Paul Obito, director of the European Federation of Meat Producers.

“It is not just a matter of spending money, but we also have to take into account risk,” Obito said.

Abundant aquifer water resources across Europe make it a much safer producer environment compared with much of the rest of the world, Obito added.

The European Court of Justice is due to rule by the end of the year on the new labeling proposals, which aim to set clear criteria for the handling of food products if they have been held on food items for longer than three months.