Burgers and the blame game


As supermarkets, fast food outlets and meat companies affected by the contaminated beef burger controversy scramble to apportion blame and recover costs for trading losses, consumer protection has taken a back seat. Once Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney identified a Polish supplier as the source of horse DNA and found no evidence of its deliberate use at the Silvercrest plant, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland concluded that further investigation was a matter for the Polish authorities. There were sighs of relief from all around the country.

The food sector has enjoyed dynamic growth in recent years and Ireland now exports 90 per cent of the beef it produces, much of it as high-quality fresh meat for the UK and European markets. While posing no threat to public health, the presence of horse DNA in frozen beef burgers damaged Ireland’s reputation for quality control. Since then, withdrawal of product has been confined to the British and Irish markets and cattle prices have not been affected. The incident does, however, emphasise the importance of continuing FSAI monitoring to ensure the safety and authenticity of ingredients and accurate labelling.

Because of strict veterinary and traceability controls at farm level, farmers have been particularly annoyed by this threat to the industry. IFA president John Bryan called for more rigorous testing of material introduced into the food chain during processing. Such “filler”, apparently from a Polish plant, contained the contaminated material. The explanation offered by Silvercrest – that the product could not be sourced in Ireland – is risible, having regard to the huge beef rendering industry here. With frozen burgers being produced for less than 20 cents, cost was a more likely factor. Whatever about that, a requirement to source all beef product in Ireland or the UK was breached and contracts with Tesco and Burger King have been lost.

With no evidence of fraud at the Silvercrest plant, the FSAI has referred further investigation to the Polish authorities. They, in turn, have been reluctant to acknowledge fault and questioned the origin of the contaminated product. Mr Coveney’s exculpation of the Silvercrest operation has appeared circumscribed, given his requirement for the introduction of new management and sampling regimes.

Because there was no threat to public health, the FSAI was criticised in some quarters for raising the alarm. That was a misguided response. The introduction of DNA testing exposed a potential fraud and the relative weakness of consumer protection legislation. By the end of next year, new EU rules will require that meat products containing added proteins from a different species be clearly identified. Such transparency will benefit everyone.

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