Horse-burger controversy a wake-up call for producers
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.