‘These things were happening in Europe but not in Poland’

When it comes to the horse-meat scandal, European countries just pass the blame

Irish company ABP is suing a Polish supplier, Food Services, for allegedly breaching the terms of its contract with its Silvercrest subsidiary, claims the Polish company denies. Photograph: PA

Irish company ABP is suing a Polish supplier, Food Services, for allegedly breaching the terms of its contract with its Silvercrest subsidiary, claims the Polish company denies. Photograph: PA

Tue, Jan 14, 2014, 01:00

Ireland’s Department of Agriculture was quick to shift the blame. Within weeks of the revelations in January 2013 that low-cost burgers sold as 100 per cent Irish beef contained horse meat, the department said an investigation had established a “direct correlation” between Irish beef burgers and raw material from Poland. This had contained a high level of equine DNA.

Polish officials were equally quick to reject the claim and accuse their Irish colleagues of being motivated by political and commercial concerns. “Such accusations are not grounded by any sound evidence and are inacceptable,” said Polish agriculture minister Stanislaw Kalemba to The Irish Times on February 1st, 2013.

However, four weeks later, the Polish veterinary inspectorate announced it had, in fact, found horse meat in samples taken from Polish factories. Case closed? Not quite.

Today, neither government officials nor meat industry groups in Warsaw want to talk about last year’s scandal. “This chapter is closed,” said Jaroslaw Naze. As deputy head of Poland’s general veterinary inspectorate, he was on the front line of the horse-meat investigation – and accusations – a year ago.

Clearly annoyed at the return of the horse inquiries, Mr Naze denies there was ever a problem with Polish companies. He says the positive tests for horse meat in Polish factories showed only traces of horsemeat – less than 1 per cent – which the European Commission subsequently told his office was negligible, probably due to contamination rather than large-scale production, and thus irrelevant.

“Everything shows that these things were happening somewhere in Europe but not in Poland,” said Mr Naze. “Someone in Europe found some way to substitute meat and change labelling. It shows that something is wrong with documentation and labelling. This was probably in the Netherlands, not at all in Poland.”

Co-ordinators at Europol, the European law enforcement agency, decline to comment in detail on their investigation but the centre of attention has shifted further west.


Fraud charges
A Dutch meat trader, Willy Selten, is under investigation for allegedly supplying tens of thousands of tonnes of horse meat labelled beef to European companies. Eight managers of French company Spanghero are facing fraud charges for knowingly passing off Romanian horse meat it bought through Dutch intermediaries as beef. The French company subsequently reopened under a new name and new management.

But the case isn’t quite closed for Poland. Irish company ABP is suing a Polish supplier, Food Services, for allegedly breaching the terms of its contract with its Silvercrest subsidiary, claims the Polish company denies.

“We didn’t send horse meat,” said Rafal Trzepanowski of Food Services. “We supplied Silvercrest on average with 15 tonnes of beef a month, which corresponds to less than 1 per cent given the scale of production.”

There is no data suggesting the horse scandal has had a lasting effect on Poland’s food export sector, worth almost €17.5 billion in 2012 and responsible for more than 12 per cent of total foreign sales. Official figures for the first quarter of 2013 show that Polish food exports totalled €4.5 billion, almost 14 per cent more than the same period the previous year.

The Polish Meat Association announced a 30 per cent collapse in beef exports in the months after the crisis. However industry observers suggest that, for the year in total, beef volumes remained steady even though prices dropped about 4 per cent.

One marked drop is the market for Polish meat trimmings, with meat producers now apparently anxious to use only product they can stand over.

“The horse-meat scandal, as well as recent quality concerns, could affect consumption growth over the long term,” noted Business Monitor International, a UK-based research group, in a June 2013 analysis.

Ireland’s ABP delivered a vote of confidence in Poland last month, announcing it would expand its operations near the western city of Poznan. After entering the Polish beef market in 2011, employing 150, the company has now bought another plant nearby.

“To come here wasn’t a decision taken lightly, so this continued acquisition is a vindication of that decision,” said Jerome Ahern, local manager of ABP Poland which was not linked to the horse-meat scandal.

Despite repeated requests, the Polish Agriculture Ministry was unwilling to comment to The Irish Times.

Poland continues to protest its innocence, though food scandals continue to pop up at a regular pace. In March an undercover Polish television report revealed how a meat producer was “refreshing” and repackaging meat to sell to clients.

In April investigators found a hidden storage unit in an abattoir in central Poland containing 30 tonnes of meat lacking any veterinary documentation. Prosecutors said the meat had come from sick animals and other animals that had died without being slaughtered.


Monitoring
For animal welfare groups, the horse-meat scandal demonstrated the impossibility of monitoring the globalised market in meat products that end up in a frozen burger or lasagne.

“The sheer length of the supply chain shows you the system is broken,” said Jo Swabe of Humane Society International.

Europol investigators say it is too soon to rule in or out any country or company of blame in the horse-meat scam.

“This is all about the money,” said Chris Vansteenkiste, Europol project manager dealing with health and safety issues. “Why did people change beef for horse meat? Because parts of the horse used were cheaper than parts of beef. People wanted to get more rich even quicker than before.”