'We don't want 112 people to walk out with no jobs'
What next? The Silvercrest plant is the biggest employer in Ballybay, Co Monaghan, with 112 people on the payroll. photograph: philip fitzpatrick/pa
In the villages where Silvercrest and Rangeland provide much-needed jobs, locals are divided as to how lasting an impact the horse DNA controversy will have
Silvercrest foods, with 112 people on the payroll, is the biggest employer in Ballybay, Co Monaghan, a town where jobs are scarce. “If anything were to happen those jobs, it would be a very big loss to the area,” says Gerry Traynor, who runs a newsagency and greengrocers on the edge of Ballybay, and who is also a Fianna Fáil councillor.
On the recent finding of horse DNA in burgers produced at Silvercrest, he says: “People are now asking the question, has this been going on for some time? What we don’t want to happen here is for 112 people to walk out the gates with no jobs.”
There are two butchers in Ballybay, MB Butchers and Quinn Quality Meats. Each displays a prominent sign stating that all its meat is Irish and locally sourced.
At Quinn Quality Meats, Martin Quinn emphasises the current market price of beef, which he says is €4.34 a kilo. “Once we have boned it, we sell it for €8.70 a kilo. It cannot be sold cheap,” he says, clearly upset. “You cannot sell 100 per cent Irish beef below cost and make a profit. All you have to do are the sums. Supermarkets are trying to kill off butchers.”
Down the street, Michael Lennon, the owner of MB Butchers, is unwilling to offer any opinion about Silvercrest, other than: “It’ll all blow over in a week or two.” Most local people are either silent or reluctant to be identified for this article.
At the Silvercrest plant, 1km outside Ballybay, the usually open gates are shut, and a security guard monitors each incoming and outgoing vehicle. None stops to talk to The Irish Times. On Wednesday, despite the fact production had ceased at the plant, the car park is full. Locals report it has been full most days.
Silvercrest employees are currently still on full pay, and there is much speculation in Ballybay about how long this will last. A long-established local businessman with connections to Silvercrest says: “I’m betting there are plans . . . to cease burger production altogether and put in another form of meat processing as soon as possible. That’s why nobody has been put on notice. I don’t think jobs will be lost.”
On Monday, production was suspended at Rangeland Foods in Lough Egish, 9km to the south. Lough Egish is a tiny village with two shops, a pub and various factory plants, including Lakeland Dairies, halfway between Ballybay and Carrickmacross.
The Rangeland plant, which employs 60 people, is located on Shercock Road, at a complex with other plants.
Testing of Rangeland products had found 75 per cent horse DNA in Polish-labelled raw material. Among Rangeland’s current clients is Supermac’s. Its highest-profile former client was McDonald’s, a contract it held from 1983 to 2007.
By Thursday, it has been announced that production at the plant was recommencing.
As in Ballybay, people in Lough Egish are reluctant to talk. “I wouldn’t like Rangeland to know I was discussing their business,” says one woman, though she acknowledges that Silvercrest and Rangeland are the talk of the place. She says the workers at Rangeland are a mix of Irish, Polish, Lithuanian and Filipino. “The Irish guys who work there are saying nothing at all to any of us since the news broke.”
Locals say Rangeland production is focused on burgers. “The public can go down there on a Thursday and buy burgers,” says Padraig McNally, a farmer and Fianna Fáil councillor, who lives in Carrickmacross. McNally has often done this.
On Wednesday, at Duffy’s Foodstores, close to the plant in Lough Egish, Rangeland frozen burgers were on sale to the public for 60c, straight from a box in the shop’s freezer.
McNally says the horsemeat findings are damaging to Monaghan in general, as the county’s economy depends on food production. The Carrickmacross-based Rye Valley Foods makes, according to McNally, “up to one million ready meals a week for the supermarket market”. Monaghan also has several poultry plants, including Grove Farm Turkeys and Silver Hill Foods.
“The news is hugely damaging to the county,” he says. “There are now questions being asked as to whether this was an accident or known to be happening.” Horsemeat costs a third of what beef does, he says. “The main problem with horsemeat is that there is no traceability to the animal, unlike cattle. You have no idea how old the horse is, for instance.” He worries that the food industry is “being driven by cost”.
But in common with Michael Lennon, the butcher in Ballybay, he is confident things will move on and the focus shift from Silvercrest and Rangeland. “We had that scare with bird flu, and people stopped buying poultry for a while. Who remembers that now? I think people forget these things fairly quick.”
In Carrickmacross, several fast-food restaurants line the main street, as well as pubs advertising food, including burgers. On Wednesday night, almost all the fast-food restaurants are empty. A man looking into the shoe-shop window beside Supermac’s, who does not want to give his name – “You never know when it might come back at you, locally” – says he regularly ate five burgers a week, some take-out, and some frozen that he cooked at home.
“I’d be happy enough eating horse meat – I’ve no problem with it. But if I pay for 100 per cent beef, that’s what I want,” he says. He is as annoyed by the thought that he’d been overcharged for his burgers as he is by the fact he may unknowingly have been eating horse meat.
“We all know it’s cheaper than beef,” he says. “And how do they know it’s horse? Who’s to say it’s not donkey we’ve been eating?”