The year of the horse

Tesco’s Everyday Value burger is back on the shelves, Irish beef exports have risen, and nobody has been prosecuted. But regulators insist the ‘horse meat’ scandal of January 2013 has taught the meat industry a very expensive lesson

This time last year, when we bit into burgers we were happily unaware of any link between processed beef and horse meat. This changed on January 15th, when the Food Safety Authority of Ireland published a survey that found 29 per cent equine DNA in the meat content of a frozen burger from Tesco.

The days and weeks that followed saw mass withdrawals of food products. Freezers were emptied and household names such as Findus, Burger King, Bird's Eye, Ikea and Nestlé were drawn into the controversy. The horse-meat content of burgers continued to rise as more tests were done; some beef lasagnes were found to contain up to 100 per cent horse meat.

Almost a year later, can we be confident that the beef burger is a horse-free foodstuff? Every week seems to bring new scares: if it’s not fox masquerading as donkey meat in China, it’s the discovery of donkey, water buffalo and goat in sausages and burgers in South Africa.

The chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Alan Reilly, believes burgers and processed-meat products have never been safer, because of the range of tests and regulations that have been introduced in response to the scandal.


“The industry will never be caught on the hop again, like it was with horse meat,” he says. Laboratory certification has become standard for anyone selling or buying meat, and testing the authenticity of meat products is the industry norm now. “So from a consumer perspective, that’s a hugely positive step.”

The European Commission has introduced a number of measures, including a system of reporting food fraud. "There really have been major changes on the back of the horse-meat scandal," Reilly says. "Huge lessons have been learned, and, looking back, the real beneficiary has been the consumer. And it has been a very expensive lesson for the food industry."

He believes the crisis has cost the industry billions of euro in terms of damage to brand names and the introduction of major advertising and marketing campaigns to regain consumer trust.

“Consumers started off telling horseburger jokes but soon became outraged and disgusted at the fact that they were cheated to the degree that they were,” he says. “The food sector has many hurdles to jump before it can regain the trust and confidence that was there before.”

Tesco and ABP Food Group know all about that. ABP made the Everyday Value burgers for Tesco at its Silvercrest plant in Ballybay, Co Monaghan. The plant closed for three months after the scandal, and in April ABP announced its sale to Kepak. It is now known as Kepak Ballybay.

Tesco withdrew the Everyday Value burger as soon as the crisis hit. It introduced a new version in September, and a spokesman says the product is being well received by customers. The new burger is made by Eurostock Foods in Northern Ireland with beef sourced in the Republic.

Both ABP and Tesco Ireland point to a range of tests and standards they have introduced to ensure that a meat-contamination scandal cannot happen again. ABP says it believes it has the most comprehensive testing regime of any European meat processor, including DNA testing of cattle and a strict supplier-approval process.

Tesco Ireland says it now has a world-class traceability and DNA-testing system across its food products. “The initial focus of our testing programme was on products containing beef, but things have evolved during the course of the year to include pork, lamb, chicken, fish and processed meats,” a spokesman says.

Tesco is also looking at ways of using tests to help identify the likely origin of some products. “For example, it can be very difficult to identify the provenance of products such as olive oil, rice or coffee by sight, smell and taste alone. Using our authenticity testing, which looks closely at the chemical make-up of a product, we can verify that what is in the pack is exactly what it says on the label.”

The Tesco spokesman says the scandal had no impact on the sale of Irish products “and we continue to be Irish agriculture’s biggest customer, working with over 11,000 Irish farm families. All of our fresh beef, pork and lamb is 100 per cent Irish while all of our fresh milk is National Dairy Council approved.”

Although all these new measures are reassuring, many people are perplexed that no one has been prosecuted for their role in the crisis. Reilly says there must be evidence that the fraudulent activity happened in this State before a prosecution can be taken, and the investigations concluded that the horse meat came from abroad.

ABP has already settled a case it took against a British-based trading company, Norwest, for supplying it with beef that contained horse meat and is taking a second case against a Polish supplier, Foodservice, for allegedly supplying beef containing equine DNA.

The Department of Agriculture’s investigation into the scandal found no evidence that either ABP or Rangeland Meats, at which some samples contained between 5 per cent and 30 per cent horse meat, had knowingly purchased or used horse meat. It also cleared the meat-trading company McAdam Food Products of knowingly supplying products containing horse meat to Rangeland. McAdam Food Products is taking a defamation case against ABP for claiming it supplied it with beef containing horse meat, and ABP has vowed to robustly defend it.

The department’s report is critical of B&F Meats, the Tipperary plant found to be dispatching horse meat labelled as beef to a customer in the Czech Republic. The plant said this was done at the request of the customer.

Naas-based QK Meats, named as the supplier of horse meat found in Bird’s Eye products, is also criticised for failing to alert the authorities to the fact that it found horse meat in its products months before the Food Safety Authority tests. QK said it had acted in good faith at the time but accepted it should have told the department about its discovery sooner. “We have apologised to the department for this, [and] deeply regret it,” it said at the time.

And the report describes as “deeply disturbing” the fact that irregularities were discovered in the identification accompanying 25 horses presented for slaughter at Ossory Meats in Banagher, Co Offaly, on one day in March.

When asked about the chance of anyone being prosecuted in the State in connection with the horse-meat scandal, a Department of Agriculture spokeswoman says: "The department is actively considering the possibility of instituting legal proceedings where appropriate, as indicated in the report. It is important to note in that context that while some of the failures referred to in the report risked reputational damage to the Irish food sector, they did not breach EU or national law." She says information relating to activities outside the jurisdiction had been passed to Europol and other member states "to facilitate continuing investigations in other countries".

The spokeswoman also refers to several measures introduced in the wake of the scandal to ensure it does not happen again. She points to the strengthening of controls relating to horse identification and the department’s supervision of horse abattoirs.

What else has changed?
So what else has changed after "horsegate"? Well, we are exporting more beef than ever. Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney has repeatedly said the incident was good for Ireland's reputation because Irish authorities discovered the fraud.

The figures bear that out. Ireland exported 56,000 tonnes of processed beef last year, compared with 62,000 tonnes in 2012, but that is a fraction of our total beef exports. Last year we exported 470,000 tonnes of beef, 16,000 tonnes more than the year before the horse-meat crisis.

Aidan Cotter, chief executive of Bord Bia, says consumer research has found that Irish beef's reputation for quality remained undiminished throughout the crisis.

It has also changed the way many of us buy meat, and this has pleased butchers. Now we want to know where the burgers were made and what exactly is in our sausages. One butcher, James Nolan, of Nolan's of Kilcullen, in Co Kildare, says it was fantastic to see people stopping to ask themselves, Where is my meat coming from?

Dave Lang of Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland, says people want to see a shorter journey from farm to fork. "The more people get involved, the more opportunities for fraud. Everyone has to make a few bob when they handle it."

He says some supermarkets didn’t come out of the scandal very well. “I know they didn’t put the horse meat into the burgers, but I think they forced the companies who made the burgers to a price. Somewhere along the line somebody was pressuring someone for cheaper meat, and they came up with the horse meat.”

This point is highlighted by Prof Chris Elliott, who published an interim report, commissioned by the British government, before Christmas. He points to a supply-chain culture of "the lower the price, the better" and says the industry needs to understand the extent of its exposure, should adulteration or substitution occur.

After months of revelations about meat products, we may think we’ve heard it all, but Elliott’s report highlights a case discovered in Northern Ireland in 2005 when meat intended for pet food may have ended up in the food chain for humans. “It was strongly suspected that material found was part of an ongoing illegal business but for lack of the necessary investigative resource this was not pursued,” his report says.

Elliott’s report also highlights the vulnerability of the fish business to fraud, including the substitution of cheaper species for expensive ones. He warns that the food sector could be seen as a soft touch for criminals because of the low risk of detection and the lack of serious penalties when caught. He calls for the setting up of a specialist food-crime unit in the UK and intelligence hubs to gather information on food crime.

Alan Reilly of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland says food-safety agencies must constantly ask where the next opportunity for food fraud might lie. If he had been asked where horse meat might be found, before the tests started, he would probably have said salami. When the first test results came back, he remembers thinking it was an Irish problem. Then Comigel in France was implicated, and soon the whole of Europe was engulfed in the crisis, as well as countries such as as Hong Kong.

Reilly is quietly amused by the fact that the Chinese Year of the Wood Horse is about to begin. The year is characterised by unexpected adventure and decisive action. Energy is high and production is rewarded.

“I think 2013 was our year of the horse,” he says. And who could argue with that?