Cork meat plant told to stop output

 

All production-related operations at a meat processing plant in Co Cork have been suspended until further notice by the Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, following the seizure of a consignment of Irish beef in the south of England last week.

The plant has not been named by the Department, but was identified yesterday by Britain's Food Standards Agency (SFA) as O'Farrell Meats in Co Cork. The Irish Times was unable to contact the company yesterday evening.

The plant, which is a small operation by industry standards, recently secured EU approval for an export licence.

The closure of production-related operations is to allow for an investigation into the age certification of animals exported from the plant. The seized meat came from animals that were more than 30 months old and this meat needs a certificate of both age and BSE-free status.

It is understood that the certification which accompanied the meat when intercepted was not that issued by the Department's own inspectors at the export premises in Co Cork.

The consignment of 90 sides of beef - equivalent to 45 steers - was seized by the Food Standards Agency at the premises of ADM Ltd in Eastbourne last Friday.

A Department of Agriculture spokesman said yesterday that the UK authorities had a problem with the particular certification for that consignment and the Department here needed to establish where that problem was.

Beef from cattle aged more than 30 months old may not be sold for consumption in Britain under trade regulations introduced as a confidence-enhancing measure following the 1996 BSE crisis in Britain. The EU has provided financial assistance to help farmers cull cattle over the age of 30 months. This meat may be and is sold in other EU countries provided the spinal cord is removed and the meat is certified as BSE-free.

British processors can import meat from cattle over 30 months old for boning-out and further processing, provided they export it to other countries.

It is legitimate for Irish meat companies to export product to Britain and other countries if it is accompanied by certification of age and BSE-free status.

Dr Patrick Wall, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, said the sale and consumption of 30-month-old beef was not a food safety issue. The FSA in Britain obviously had been monitoring the situation over several months and had been in contact with him, but it was a trade matter.

However, the National Farmers' Union in Britain has expressed "grave concern" about the seizure of the beef. Stringent procedures had been in place in the UK for five years and this should be the case in Ireland also, Mr Tim Bennett, the deputy president, said yesterday. "British farmers will want to know how on earth this happened. It is vital that there is a thorough investigation as soon as possible," he said.

Last year - an exceptional one because of the foot-and-mouth crisis - around 55 per cent of Irish beef, worth €508 million (£400 million), was exported to Britain. In a normal year, Britain would account for around 25 per cent of exports. Between 12 and 15 per cent of the fresh meat sold in Britain comes from Ireland.