Meat from cattle slaughtered after testing positive for bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is being sold for human consumption and earning millions of pounds for the Government, it has emerged.
The scale of the money-making operation comes amid increasing concern over the disease, which is now present in domestic cats and recently claimed the life of a seal pup thought to have been bitten by a badger – the first ever such case.
Officials have insisted that the meat is fit to eat and have labelled claims to the contrary as "irresponsible scaremongering".
Last year Defra, the food and farming ministry, sold raw meat from around 28,000 diseased animals, raking in almost £10 million of the £34 million it paid out to farmers in compensation for lost income.
Most supermarkets and burger chains refuse to buy the meat, including Tesco which does not take it due, it says, to "public-health concerns surrounding the issue of bTB and its risk to consumers".
However, it is being sold to some caterers and food processors, and finding its way into schools, hospitals and the military, or being processed into products such as pies and pasties.
The revelations come asofficials insist the meat, which may also go into pet food, is safe and claim the risk of contracting the disease through its consumption is "extremely low".
Andy Foot, the National Farmers' Union's livestock chairman in Dorset, said there was "categorically no problem" with the sale, which had been "common knowledge" since it began, more than a decade ago.
Mr Foot, a beef farmer and member of the beef and lamb industry body EBLEX, added: "There has never been any case of TB being caught from meat – it has never been a problem and still isn't.
"Once (the animal) has gone from the farm it is not the farmers' responsibility as to what happens – it has been a policy of Defra, not of the farming industry, but there is no health risk whatsoever."
Defra sells the meat without anything to warn processors or consumers that it comes from bTB-infected cattle but says the risk of infection is "extremely low".
A spokesman added: "All meat from cattle slaughtered due to bovine TB must undergo rigorous food safety checks before it can be passed fit for consumption.
"The Food Standards Agency has confirmed there are no known cases where TB has been transmitted through eating meat and the risk of infection from eating meat remains extremely low."
In 2011, 31,615 cattle were purchased by the UK government and slaughtered after testing positive for bTB. About 88% of the carcasses were deemed fit for human consumption and went into the food chain.
The testing of cattle and compensation for farmers costs taxpayers about £80m a year and Defra's £10m income from the carcasses is used to offset this.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) said carcasses from infected animals were subjected to a close visual inspection and infected areas removed before the meat was consumed.
The meat is not, however, subjected to any microbiological tests.
In a statement it said: "When a tuberculous lesion has been found in the lymph nodes of only one organ or part of the carcass, only the affected organ or part of the carcass and the associated lymph nodes are declared unfit for human consumption.
"The remaining meat is considered safe to enter the food chain.
"Cooking this meat would be an additional safety step, but we would emphasise the risk even before cooking is very low."
All meat must be marked with an identification mark which will indicate the approval number of the plant of origin.
However, meat from TB reactors, once it has been passed as fit for human consumption, is not required to be marked.
Besides Tesco, other major companies that reject the meat include Sainsbury's, Burger King and McDonald's.