The beef industry: A lot done. More to do

Close to the bone: the horse-meat crisis is a chance for Ireland to introduce a full DNA database of slaughtered animals. stock photograph: paul mcerlane/reuters

Close to the bone: the horse-meat crisis is a chance for Ireland to introduce a full DNA database of slaughtered animals. stock photograph: paul mcerlane/reuters

Sat, Feb 9, 2013, 00:00

Standards are higher and traceability has improved since the beef tribunal of the early 1990s, but the industry’s reputation is just as low

In the early 1980s I spent a summer working at an abattoir just north of Ballymun, in Dublin, owned by the Goodman group. The work mostly involved pushing halves of recently slaughtered, skinned and eviscerated cattle along corridors as they hung from rails on the ceiling.

It was well-paid but unsettling work. The men in the slaughtering hall, holding sharp knives and covered in blood, would often strike up a chant as they worked. A live beast entering at one end of the line would be converted into a skinned and halved carcass in just a few minutes.

It is rare for an ordinary consumer to experience the meat trade, or any point of the food chain, at such close quarters. But in these past few weeks the still-unfolding scandal about the use of horse meat in what are meant to be beef burgers has forced us all to think about the meat trade and what we eat.

It has also hurt the reputation of one of Ireland’s most successful indigenous industries, and one of the major players in that industry: Larry Goodman’s ABP Group.

Ireland produces about 500,000 tonnes of beef a year and is the fourth-largest exporter of beef in the world. About half of Irish beef is exported to the UK. The EU as a whole consumes more beef than it produces, and demand for beef around the globe has been growing in recent years, largely because of rising demand in such places as China and Brazil.

That means the so-called “fifth quarter” of a beast – the offal and skin that does not form part of the two fore- and two hind-quarters into which slaughtered beasts are cut – has become more valuable, and other parts of the animal’s body, such as the head, are now kept and sold.

Readers who were around at the time of the beef tribunal in the early 1990s will recall that the markets for Irish beef then were places such as Russia, Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, not to mention EU intervention.

That situation has been transformed, with Ireland now at the forefront of supplying quality chilled beef to top retailers in the UK and farther afield in Europe. This has hugely increased the value of the beef sector, and Goodman’s ABP Group has been at the coalface during this transformation.

Goodman and sons

Goodman, who is now 75, is still very much involved in the business. He is executive chairman of a group that has a turnover of €2.5 billion a year and employs 8,000 people, 2,500 of them in the Republic. His sons, Laurence (31) and Mark (29), work alongside him at the group.

ABP has multiple blue-chip customers, including Sainsbury’s in the UK and Superquinn and Tesco in Ireland, for the high-quality chilled meats it produces, which account for 96 per cent or more of the ABP turnover. ABP accounts for about 25 per cent of the 1.5 million cattle killed in the Republic each year (followed by Dawn, at 20 per cent, and Kepak, at 15 per cent).

Back in 1996, at the time of the BSE crisis, an effort began to ensure that a steak on the shelf could be traced back to its farm of origin. The Department of Agriculture oversees a scheme under which cattle are tagged and given passports without which they cannot be killed in an Irish abattoir.

IdentiGen, an Irish company with laboratories in the UK, US and Canada, offers the DNA TraceBack scheme to big retailers. DNA samples taken at abattoirs are put into a database and matched with the tags and passport details. A steak that ends up on a retailer’s shelf can then be checked to see if its DNA matches the DNA of the beast killed in the abattoir. In this way, a particular steak can be traced to a particular cow reared on a particular farm.

Ireland became a world leader in its policing of the beef food chain. But problems remain when it comes to minced meat and processed food, especially where there are multiple suppliers.

Crisis and opportunity

Paddy Cunningham, professor of animal genetics at Trinity College Dublin, a former chief science adviser to the Government and a founder of IdentiGen, says the crisis is an opportunity for Ireland to up its game by creating a database that would contain the DNA of all slaughtered Irish animals. Consumers across Europe could then know that the Irish steaks they are buying in supermarkets are what their labels claim.

But the horse-burger scandal has highlighted the fact that burger producers that get their meat from traders, who in turn get it through a supply chain that moves down from suppliersto cutters and abattoirs, have less control over what is going into a product than its packaging might imply.

Senior figures in the sector foresee shortening of the supply chain to companies that supply supermarkets and other retail chains, which can lose huge sums of money if consumers lose trust in their products.

Another topic that has arisen is the use of forensic-science procedures, not unlike those in the TV drama Crime Scene Investigation, to test meat products. These supersensitive tests can detect minuscule amounts of contaminants. The press release from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland that started the burger scandal last month disclosed that large amounts of horse meat were found in Silvercrest burgers and that other, non-ABP products it had tested contained tiny amounts of pig DNA.

In this way two issues were confused. The food industry allows products to be declared free of genetically modified material if they contain less than 1 per cent of it. Given the arrival of widespread DNA testing, a similar rule of thumb is likely to emerge for meats. Particular difficulties exist for religious beliefs that forbid the consumption of pork, and that issue will have to be resolved. About 4.5 per cent of the UK’s population is Muslim.

Anger at ABP: Goodman group seeks answers

When Tesco announced it was no longer buying burgers from the Silvercrest plant in Ballybay, Co Monaghan, it said the breach of trust had been too great.

The UK multiple had a deal with Silvercrest that only Irish and British meat would be used, but the horse meat found in some burgers was said to have come in Polish meat bought by Silvercrest.

Tesco is still buying fresh meat from Larry Goodman’s ABP group, however.

ABP has said it never knowingly used horse meat and is seeking to identify how it came to be included in its burgers.

The Ballybay plant produced burgers for customers other than Tesco, companies that did not restrict the content to UK and Irish meat. Senior management at ABP are angry about what it says was a breakdown of control at Silvercrest, leading to Polish meat going into Tesco burgers. The outcome of the group’s inquiry is awaited.

Meanwhile, the convenience-foods division, which oversaw the Ballybay plant and reported to ABP’s chief executive, Paul Finnerty, has been disbanded. It is one of five divisions within the group.

Where’s the beef from? How the meat comes to Ireland

The investigations into how horse meat got into burgers at ABP’s Silvercrest plant in Ballybay, Co Monaghan, point – albeit inconclusively – towards Poland.

Silvercrest bought Polish meat directly and through intermediaries. In both cases, horse meat seems to have been in consignments bought from Food Service Poland, a cutting plant in Rawa Mazowiecka, south of Warsaw, that buys from Polish abattoirs.

Frozen Polish meat is brought to Ireland in refrigerated containers. Some come from Polish ports, others via French ports; some also travel through England.

The meat that contained horse, and that Silvercrest bought from McAdam Food Services, a broker in Co Monaghan, appears to have come from the plant in Rawa Mazowiecka.

A range of investigations is under way to identify how horse meat came to be included with beef from Poland. One issue is when the controversial batches left the Polish plant, when they arrived in Ireland and what route they took. Could the horse meat have been introduced along the way? Nothing in the public domain suggests this occurred other than the fact that everyone involved denies intentionally using horse meat.

McAdam Foods has also supplied Polish meat to Rangeland Foods, some of whose burgers also contained horse.

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