Q&A: The horsemeat scandal
What will our children be eating next in their burgers? Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Why are we talking about the horsemeat crisis again?
The British House of Commons’ environment, food and rural affairs committee published its second report on the horsemeat crisis yesterday.
Its first report was published in February and focused on the discovery of horse and pig DNA in beef products. The committee decided to produce a second report once the UK and EU meat testing programmes were complete and the full extent of the contamination was known.
This report looks at the capacity of the relevant UK authorities to respond to major incidents such as these. People who gave evidence to the committee included ABP Food Group head Paul Finnerty and Prof Alan Reilly, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.
What does the report say about how the Irish authorities handled the crisis?
The report says it is disappointing that, six months on, no prosecutions have been brought in the UK or Ireland. It says MPs are concerned at the failure of authorities in both countries to acknowledge the extent of the fraudulent and illegal trade in mislabelled meat. It calls for assurances that the movement of horses between the UK and Ireland is being properly tracked by the relevant authorities.
Shouldn’t we have an inquiry into the whole debacle?
Actually we did. On March 14th, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney published the findings of his department’s investigation into equine DNA and the mislabelling of processed beef. The report found no evidence that Co Monaghan’s Silvercrest, which produced a burger containing 29 per cent horsemeat, and Rangeland Meats, where some samples contained between 5 per cent and 30 per cent horsemeat, had knowingly purchased or used horsemeat. It also cleared meat trading company McAdam Food Products of knowingly trading products containing horsemeat.
The report was very critical of Silvercrest’s use of non-approved suppliers. It was also critical of B&F Meats, the Tipperary plant found to be dispatching horsemeat, labelled as beef, to a single customer in the Czech Republic.
Also, Naas-based QK Meats, named as the supplier of horsemeat found in Birds Eye products, was criticised for its failure to alert the authorities to the fact that it had found horsemeat in its products months before the Food Safety Authority tests.
It described as “deeply disturbing” that irregularities were only discovered with the identification accompanying 25 horses presented for slaughter at Ossory Meats in Banagher on one day in March.
Will anyone be prosecuted in Ireland or the UK in connection with the crisis?
A good question. There were a number of high profile arrests in the UK but no one was prosecuted. There have been no prosecutions here and gardaí say their investigation is ongoing.
Asked about this on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland yesterday, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney said one prosecution was being pursued but that “it takes time to put a case together to make sure you win”.
Has anything changed since we first started talking about horse burgers?
Actually, yes. Thousands of authenticity tests on beef products have been conducted across Europe since the news of horsemeat in burgers emerged in January. DNA testing of meat by the industry has become routine and in May, the ABP Food Group said it was introducing a regime of DNA-testing every animal it slaughters, ie, almost a million cattle a year.
Before the horsemeat crisis, our horse traceability system was famously lax compared to the tight regulations surrounding cattle identification. A centralised equine database is now being built. There are also plans to register meat traders as food business operators.
ABP’s Silvercrest plant was sold to Kepak in April; the following month Kepak won back the Burger King contract which had been lost when the horsemeat scandal erupted.
And butcher shops continue to enjoy a booming trade as people seek assurances regarding the origin of their meat.
Could it happen again?
While the practice of substituting beef with cheaper horsemeat has been knocked on the head for now, there’s no doubt that food fraud will always be with us.
Fraudsters will continue to try to find ways to dupe the public by using cheaper ingredients or by passing off fake food and drink as the real thing.
The question is, what will be next?