Inquiries into Ireland’s horse-meat contamination scandal highlights clear concerns about the activities of traders and intermediaries operating outside the state, agriculture minister Simon Coveney says.
Ireland was the first nation to discover horse-meat contamination in processed beef products.
That discovery two months ago set in train inquiries across the European Union, resulting in the recall of tens of millions of items in at least a dozen European countries.
The scandal revealed the complexities of the food chain, as several major brands found themselves withdrawing contaminated products produced by contractors.
Coveney said his department was first informed two months ago by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) of its finding of 29 per cent equine DNA in a single beef burger sold in Tesco and manufactured by the Silvercrest plant in County Monaghan.
This resulted in the immediate launch of an official investigation.
The investigation, initially involving the FSAI and the agriculture department’s veterinary inspectorate and audit team, was broadened to include the department’s special investigation unit and the police.
“It transpired that what had been uncovered was a pan-European problem of fraudulent mislabelling of certain beef products. Almost all member states have been affected by the problem. Indeed, it has been uncovered outside of the European Union.
“It became a global problem affecting some large global companies and international food brands.”
Coveney said the investigation showed the equine DNA found in consignments of frozen beef products was labelled to be of Polish origin.
“The investigation had not found any evidence of adulteration with horse meat of these consignments in Ireland but in this regard, following our enquiries, there are clear concerns about the activities of traders/intermediaries operating outside the state.
“Information uncovered in the investigation has been passed to the appropriate authorities and Europol.
“That is not to suggest that intermediaries in the supply chain were the sole cause of the problem,” he said.
“The investigation has also shown direct trade with Poland. In the case of one Polish company, whose product was found positive for equine DNA, the Polish company arranged to collect the consignment and reimburse the Irish operator (QK Meats).
“The investigation concludes that in the case of Silvercrest and Rangeland Meats there was no evidence that they deliberately purchased or used horse meat in their production processes or that these companies were relabeling or tampering with inward consignments.
“Given the reputational issues for the Irish food industry as a whole, I believe the practices by two companies of not respecting customer specifications (in case of Silvercrest) and of knowingly withholding information about problems in the supply chain (in case of QK Cold stores) are totally unacceptable.
“Likewise, I am extremely concerned at the failure of ABP to maintain proper oversight of Silvercrest. We have a right to expect better from the Irish food industry. The companies have let themselves down as well as risking reputational damage to the Irish food sector itself.
“B&F Meats was found to be involved in mislabelling of a limited quantity of horsemeat for export to the Czech Republic. While the company claims that no fraudulent intent was involved, the placing of a false label on a product and the question of instituting legal proceedings in this respect remains under consideration.”
Coveny said a testing protocol had since been agreed with the industry on pre-packaged beef products on sale to the final consumer or to mass caterers, beef products offered for sale without pre-packaging to consumers or to mass caterers, and meat ingredients used in processed beef products.
The results would be made public.
The first set of results was published in early March. Most of the 957 tests were negative except for products already identified as positive.
“This episode,” he said, “has revealed the extent and complexity of the involvement of traders and agents in the food supply chain. With the legal power already in place I have decided that all such intermediaries operating in Ireland will be registered as Food Business Operators.
“A number of changes are warranted in relation to EU labelling regulations, such as provisions covering intermediate labels and reporting of mislabelling incidences, as well as practical steps on the use of security features and more detail on commercial documentation. These will be pursued at EU level as appropriate.”
Coveney promised improvements to horse identification and control systems.
“In general, while the investigation did not uncover any illegal introduction of horse meat into the food chain in Ireland, we have accelerated our review of procedures in relation to horse identification and controls.
“We believe there is need for significant changes here to move horse traceability to the same level as cattle identification, where systems were developed in response to BSE [mad cow disease] in the mid 1990s.”
ABP Food Group said it was bitterly disappointed by Coveney’s comments in respect of the company, saying it had been at the forefront of the successful development of Ireland’s agri-food exports over many years.
“ABP Food Group operates to the very highest standards of management and governance, but the controls in the case of Silvercrest let the company down,” it said in a statement.
“The company has already apologised to its customers and stakeholders for these shortcomings.
“It has also been a victim of the wide-scale European equine fraud and the cost of this, and the specification breach, has been considerable.
“But the company has acted since the emergence of this issue in an entirely appropriate fashion, having co-operated fully with the minister’s department; implemented the voluntary withdrawal of 10 million burgers from the market; suspended production at Silvercrest; as well as the other operational changes the company has already outlined.
“In particular, at an early point the Group disbanded the frozen division that Silvercrest reported into.”
It continued: “ABP Food Group also finds yesterday’s report regarding another Irish food company extraordinary. It is remarkable that another food operator was aware of equine contamination in the beef supply chain for many months without making the authorities or the industry aware. Had the authorities been aware the issue could have been managed very differently and the risk to the Irish agri-food sector significantly reduced.”