Investigation moves into criminal sphere
Investigations into how horse DNA entered the food chain through beefburgers made at meat processing plants in the Republic changed direction on Monday when the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation (GBFI) and the Department of Agriculture’s special investigations unit (SIU) were asked to identify the source of the mislabelled meat.
Initially the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) was leading the investigation and the central issue was thought to be labelling.
EU legislation governing food labels is unambiguous: if horse meat or pork are used as ingredients or as part of a compound ingredient their presence must be declared. The EU commissioner for health and consumer policy, Tonio Borg, confirmed the burgers mixed with horse meat were “misleading and breaching EU legislation”.
No legal definition
He said, however, that no legal definition for “burger” or “beefburger” existed but said “all substances used in the manufacture or preparation of a food and still present in the finished product” had to be listed on packaging.
The FSAI, the Health Service Executive or the Department of Agriculture could have launched prosecutions but only of the retailers involved as they were the ones who printed the labels. There was obviously little appetite to prosecute Tesco, Aldi, Dunnes Stores and Iceland as they had no knowledge of the presence of horse DNA in the mix of the products they were selling.
In any event the issue goes much deeper than labels. Addressing the Oireachtas agriculture committee hearing yesterday, the FSAI’s Prof Alan Reilly said it had uncovered poor practice within the burger industry. He said it remained to be seen whether this was due to “carelessness, collusion or deliberate fraud”.
He suggested one motive for fraud. A spike in prices on global markets – the cost of the raw materials for beefburgers has increased by close to 20 per cent in less than two years – “can lead to a temptation to cut corners, to substitute cheaper raw materials for higher-priced ingredients”.
Once fraud is suspected the investigation moves from a labelling issue to a criminal one. This is where the GBFI and, more significantly, the SIU come in. The SIU investigates suspected breaches of laws governing animal disease control; animal identification; and the production, processing and trading of animals, carcasses or meat intended for human consumption.
Its authorised officers have significant powers of entry, search and seizure of both documents and materials when investigating suspected wrongdoing and it can refer cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Its involvement in the horse DNA scandal is a sign the Government is stepping up its attempts to get to the root of the problem.