Horse-burger controversy a wake-up call for producers

Mon, Feb 11, 2013, 00:00

OPINION:Any further breaches of confidence in the food industry could be extremely costly

One of the big advances in the Irish farm and food industry in recent decades was the acknowledgement that there is actually a consumer at the end of the food chain.

For many years, our main exports – meat and dairy goods – were sold in bulk as commodities onto foreign markets. That all changed as the industry modernised and focused on the end purchaser and enthused about the customer being king.

Huge strides were made to improve and monitor food production standards including animal welfare, safe use of chemicals on farms as well as hygiene and food safety at factory level. These are all necessary for quality assurance schemes.

Anyone who listened to Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney over the past two years will be familiar with his mantra about the success of Ireland’s €9 billion food industry and its potential to prosper during the recession. Farming and food is a good news story and it needs to be told, he proclaimed.

We have seen Coveney’s frustration over the past few weeks as the bad news unfolds over horse meat in beef burgers. Ireland’s positive message about our wholesome green reputation has been dented, and we are being forced to defend the reputation of Irish meat.

Bord Bia still insist that coverage of the crisis is largely limited to Britain and Ireland where horse meat isn’t eaten. Yet they are on standby to launch a promotional offensive in Europe if any further twists lead to bad publicity on the Continent.

If such a publicity drive is mounted, it won’t be the first time. The State food board had to campaign because of the devastating BSE outbreak here in the 1990s and after the pork dioxin contamination in 2008.

Consumers also needed reassurance following the allegations of sharp practice in the beef industry investigated by a lengthy judicial inquiry in the early 1990s.

Some of the most serious allegations centred on Larry Goodman’s beef empire. But despite the fallout from the tribunal report and a financial rescue package for his group, Goodman re-emerged as a dominant player on Irish and European beef markets.

Despite his considerable wealth, he almost never seeks publicity, yet he is occasionally available to the media at major international food fairs. I met him last October at the SIAL fair in Paris on my last day as a full-time correspondent. He was clearly glad those controversial days of the beef tribunal were long behind him.

He must now be furious that his meat group is once again a focus of attention. The loss of major burger contracts by Silvercrest is obviously a big cost, and being in the limelight once more won’t please him.

Three other companies along the Border also have been involved in this complex web about the source of horse meat in product. Freeza Meats in Newry was found to have a consignment of frozen boxed beef with Polish labels. McAdam Foods in Monaghan says it had no knowledge of the possibility of equine content being found in meat products it imported from Poland. Rangeland Foods in Castleblaney had to suspend production for some days after a test found horse DNA in raw material labelled as Polish, though the frozen product had not entered the food chain.

Let down

Thankfully, at farm level, we don’t hear the word “rogue” nowadays. It was often used in previous decades to describe dealers who transported cattle in contravention of BSE regulations, those who moved sheep between farms during the foot and mouth outbreak, and so-called “van men” who sold illegal animal growth promoters to farmers.

Farmers today rightly feel let down by the horse meat controversy after all their work in improving hygiene and beef quality. They have also invested a lot of effort in traceability systems enabling food to be tracked from “farm to fork”.

Despite all the jocose comments about the horse meat controversy, the alarm bells are again ringing about what can happen in the food industry. Consumers nowadays are extremely discerning about their choice of food and what it contains, and the horse meat controversy has reopened the issue of trust between consumer and processor.

The Food Safety Authority says it remains to be seen if what happened with horse DNA was “carelessness, collusion or deliberate fraud”.

But where does this leave the consumer? The authorities insist that the horse meat crisis is not one of food safety but rather one of labelling. That is serious enough given that the public is entitled to know what they are eating and paying for.

But it is still disturbing that in the catering sector, according to the Food Safety Authority, a record number of enforcement orders were served last year on restaurants and food outlets for breaches of food safety laws. A total of 109 establishments were either closed or warned – up 30 per cent on 2011.

Why do consumers have to tolerate shoddy practices in the food trade? In the case of horse meat, we might soon find out as the Garda Commissioner is hoping for speedy answers. We’ll soon know if some people in the industry have deliberately tinkered with public trust. That trust was not easily won – it took a raft of legislation, along with huge and costly efforts by the government and Bord Bia to rebuild consumer confidence following disasters in the past.

Long-term damage

Farmers fear that the cost of whatever extra testing is introduced to prevent irregularities will ultimately have to be borne by them. But inevitably the State will have to pick up some of the tab for the tightening of practices and any additional food promotions.

The food industry should heed the warning being sounded that any tampering with product will not be tolerated by consumers who will simply switch their choices as so many people did after previous food scares.

If the burger controversy ignites internationally with any new revelations, then long-term damage could be inflicted on one of the few Irish industries with solid growth targets for the future.

Damage limitation may have been successful this time, but any further breaches of confidence could be extremely costly.

It’s said that if a controversy lasts for more than two weekends, then the problem is really serious. At this stage, the horse meat issue has gone on for four weeks.


Joe O’Brien is a former RTÉ agriculture correspondent

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