All eyes on Coveney as horse meat debacle tests political ability

Mon, Jan 28, 2013, 00:00

Analysis:Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney was clearly a relieved man when he met the media at his office on Saturday evening.

After days of fielding questions about the lack of results in the investigation into the presence of horse meat in beef burgers, he finally had answers.

And they were the answers he wanted as they showed that imported product was the source of the horse meat in burgers produced by the ABP-owned Silvercrest Foods. Had the results pointed the finger of blame at Irish product, the negative headlines would have continued for days, if not weeks.

The results couldn’t come soon enough for the Minister. This was his first major crisis and, given that he is sometimes touted as a future Fine Gael leader, all eyes were on him.

He made a good start, stating the facts clearly on the day the crisis broke and vowing to get to the bottom of it urgently. But, as the days dragged on and the source still was not identified, he came in for some criticism, particularly from the Opposition benches.

Political commentary

Regular interventions by Fianna Fáil’s agriculture spokesman Éamon Ó Cuív about the pace of the investigation irked him and he described the political commentary of recent days as “unhelpful”.

Had the results not come out on Saturday, he would undoubtedly have come in for strong criticism in yesterday’s newspapers and in the Dáil this week. Now he will be hoping that he, and Bord Bia, can get back to promoting the Irish food industry abroad. Food and drink exports topped €9 billion for the first time last year and beef exports were worth €1.9 billion.

The results have also vindicated the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, which was becoming the focus of some criticism in recent days. There was even speculation in farming circles that the burger containing 29 per cent horse meat never existed. But the weekend results showing 20 per cent horse DNA in the Polish raw material backed up the authority’s findings and laid that matter to rest. The work by the food safety watchdog has already led to positive changes in the meat industry.

Testing regime

The ABP Food Group has started implementing a new DNA testing regime and Coveney said he would be considering the use of such testing in meat processing on a regular basis. And the issue has also focused the public’s mind on cheap meat products.

The authority was also criticised for releasing all its findings together, instead of just highlighting the burger with 29 per cent horse meat.

Liffey Meats must have felt very aggrieved to have been lumped in with Silvercrest when only trace amounts of horse meat were found in its products. But had the authority not released all its findings, they would eventually come to light and the public would be outraged that the authority concealed the news that major supermarket chains were selling burgers containing traces of horse meat.

But questions still remain. Why was this Polish product being imported to a country famed for its beef production? Will there be a succession of legal actions in the wake of the scandal and who will eventually pay the cost? And, most importantly, can the Irish beef industry recover from this setback? Only time will tell.

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