Closing the stable door
The discovery of horse meat and pork in a variety of meals that were supposed to contain only beef has provided a convincing reason for the introduction of comprehensive DNA testing of all processed meats within the European Union. It raises serious questions involving widespread commercial fraud and a need for accurate labelling for religious reasons and the protection of public health.
Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney reported during the week that “huge progress” had been made by his department and the Garda Síochána in finding out how horse meat had ended up in Irish-made beef burgers. But a lot, he said, remained to be done. So it did. Within days, Irish company Greencore was forced to withdraw bolognese sauce from Britain when it was discovered to contain horse meat. An ABP plant in Nenagh, Co Tipperary, was identified as the source. That company has since denied it ever knowingly purchased or processed equine material.
As chairman of the EU council of agriculture ministers, Mr Coveney is under pressure. In his anxiety to protect the Irish food industry last month he pointed the finger of blame at Poland when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland first blew the whistle on the meat substitution racket. Polish officials have since challenged his assertion concerning the origin of the controversial meat. Now, the Minister has further questions to answer regarding ABP.
Blame transference within and between states became a major exercise as the scandal spread. Meat processors blamed suppliers; supermarkets and large retailers blamed the processors; governments blamed the retailers and the European Commission tried to avoid responsibility by insisting that food monitoring and labelling were matters for national governments. It was a shabby episode, reflecting the absence of strict oversight and regulation within the meat processing industry, the cost-cutting pressures being applied by retailers and the uncomfortable fact that poorer people and those in public institutions were the ultimate victims.
The scale of the fraud perpetrated on consumers became clearer as meat products were withdrawn from supermarket shelves right across Europe. Meat dealers from Cyprus to the Netherlands were implicated for supplying Romanian horse meat as beef product to Ireland, Britain and elsewhere. Rendered horse meat from EU abattoirs and its ultimate use tended to escape under the official radar. Governments did not want to know.
What is now happening is a time-buying exercise. From next month, a DNA testing system for horse meat will be introduced at all EU food processing plants. That delay should provide plenty of time for new supply arrangements to be put in place. The noise of stable doors closing is deafening.