How to restore belief in beef


After a week of horse puns, farmers and food-safety experts are infuriated by the damage to the industry and are working to mend fences

The discovery of horse meat in beef burgers was a dream story for headline writers this week. They rose to the challenge admirably, with offerings such as “Beef burger sellers are flogging a dead horse” and “Horses in courses”. The Guardian offered three thrifty horse-meat recipes from a 19th-century French cookbook, and Twitter feeds filled up with jokes about burger-eaters being in a “stable condition” after getting the trots.

But it was no laughing matter for anyone involved in the controversy. The news that the Irish meat processor Silvercrest Foods made a Tesco burger that contained 29 per cent horse meat relative to beef content is alarming for many reasons.

While there is no health risk in eating a burger that contains horse meat, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland says it raises concerns about the traceability of meat ingredients and products entering the food chain. There was nothing on the labelling of the Tesco Everyday Value burger to suggest it contained horse meat. If you could unwittingly eat horse meat in a burger, what else might you be eating?

About 150 workers at the Silvercrest Foods plant in Ballybay now find themselves with no work to do, following a suspension of production until the issue is resolved. They will continue to be paid, but it is unclear what will happen after the source of the horse meat is pinpointed. How many orders will they have to fill?

Silvercrest Foods, owned by ABP Food Group, isn’t the only company affected. Burgers from another ABP company in Britain, Dalepak Hambleton, tested positive for low traces of horse meat. And in Ballyjamesduff, Co Cavan, Liffey Meats also found itself in the headlines when some of its burgers were found to contain low traces of horse DNA. It quickly said the source of the contamination was imported ingredients.

This is also a blow to all meat factories here. Exports of frozen beef burgers and other uncooked processed beef were valued at €170 million in 2011, according to Bord Bia. The UK accounted for 80 per cent of these exports, and since Tuesday its residents have been hearing the words “Irish burgers” and “horse meat” in the same sentence.

Nor will it boost the sales of burgers here. We munched our way through €23.7 million worth of fresh and frozen burgers last year.

Maze from farm to fork

But focusing on the ingredients in value burgers can be only a good thing, according to craft butchers. While their stacks of plump, handmade burgers look more attractive than their frozen equivalents, they can never compete with the supermarket giants when it comes to price.

Prof Alan Reilly, the chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, says people have to ask more questions about cheaper products. “If you go into a butcher’s shop and buy one burger for €1.50 and then go into Tesco and buy eight burgers for €1.50, you’ve got to ask yourself what’s going on,” he says.

Last October Patrick Wall, associate professor of public health at University College Dublin, almost seemed to predict the crisis when he spoke of a huge disconnect between consumers and modern farming and food production. Consumers are encouraged to think there was a straight line between farm and fork, “but it’s more like a maze” he told a conference organised by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

Wall says one ham sandwich could contain trimmings of meat from three continents. “People have unrealistic expectations. They think there should be no risk in their food,” he says, but everything comes with a risk.

That point is echoed by Prof Mike Gibney of UCD’s institute of food and health, who says there is no end to the number of checks that can be done, but resources are limited.

“I think it’s easy to say we should have discovered it . . . The fact that we did discover it, and it wasn’t the British or the Danes who discovered it, I think is a good point.”

Like DNA tests at crime scenes, the test that was used by the food-safety authority is so sensitive that it can pick up traces of DNA from meats that were processed in the facility on a previous day.

The British Food Standards Agency has said the Irish authority’s test is a novel one that it will be adding to its armoury of food-safety tools.

Farmers’ reaction

Farmers are infuriated by the controversy. Gabriel Gilmartin, the president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association, points to the high levels of bureaucracy farmers face, saying they are deeply uneasy about the thought that these high standards of scrutiny may not be matched elsewhere in the food chain.

It is also a major headache for Bord Bia, which has been working to reassure overseas customers since the controversy broke.

Looking at media coverage of the events this week, Reilly said he was at a loss to understand why the media was doing so much damage to the Irish meat industry.

“Our study was focused on frozen beef burgers, on products at the cheapest end of the market,” he says. “We have absolutely no issues with mince. We’ve no issue with fresh burgers. But the media seems to have gone mad with it in terms of talking Irish beef, and prime cuts and sides of Irish beef. We’re not looking at those types of products at all. They are not on our radar screen.”

So what will happen now, after this controversy blows over? ABP Food Group has said it will introduce its own DNA analysis.

Reilly says the entire meat industry must introduce its own testing on bought-in ingredients.

“They may not know too much about the provenance of them. Some of these products are bought on the open market. They need to assure themselves that they are putting beef into beef burgers, pork into pork products and so on,” he says. “That type of testing needs to be the norm for the food industry in the future.”