Irish food standards agency did not want to prosecute beef industry over horse-meat scandal, inquiry told

Food Safety Authority of Ireland rejects charges as ‘a fantastic theory’

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland was criticised by MPs for the method it used to carry out its sampling for horsemeat during a House of Commons hearing yesterday.

Labour MP Barry Gardiner alleged that the authority had privately warned the meat industry to clean up its act, but it decided to take random, rather than formal samples when the industry did not heed warnings.

The allegations were made when the authority's chief executive Alan Reilly and and its director of consumer protection Raymond Ellard appeared before the Commons' committee on environment, food and rural affairs.

Describing Mr Gardiner’s claims as “a fantastic theory”, Mr Reilly said the Irish DNA tests were a development of an earlier one carried out in 2005 used to test the authenticity of chicken: “We found them to be contaminated with pork and beef proteins,” he told MPs.


Mr Gardiner had said: "Can I put it to you that you did have intelligence, that the industry had been asked to clean its act up but it hadn't, and you decided then what you would do is test for horse at a minute level, but with a test that you knew would not stand up in court.

“So it was a way of gathering all the guys who were not taking notice of the instruction to clean their act up: you gather them all together and you prove that they were using horsemeat but, also, you can’t make a prosecution on the back of it,” he alleged.

Producing a transcript of a conversation Mr Reilly had with the head of the UK's Food Standards Agency, Catherine Brown, Mr Gardiner said Mr Reilly had told her that the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney's job is "to sustain" the Irish food industry.

“You wanted them to clean their act up but you didn’t want to destroy the Irish industry in the process. Your minister would have been furious (with you) if you had, so you developed a way to square the circle,” the Labour MP went on.

Repeatedly, MPs, including the committee’s chair, Conservative MP Anne McIntosh, refused to believe Mr Reilly’s declarations that the tests which began last November had not been prompted by intelligence that companies were misbehaving.

“We just thought what type of products the consumer (would) not be able to recognise. If you buy steak you know it is steak, but if you buy cottage buy, or lasagne you don’t really know what is in that particular product,” he told them.

Facing repeated criticism from Mr Gardiner, Mr Reilly said: "I think there have been huge positive results from what we found and huge benefits for the European consumer. If we hadn't done it, your citizens would still be eating horsemeat."

Meanwhile, MPs expressed surprise that the joint Department of Agriculture-Garda investigation that is under way has so far not seen anyone charged and facing prosecution for breaching food regulations, or conspiracy charges.

“It does surprise me. In this country, arrests have been made and potentially prosecutions will be brought. And we started two months after Ireland. When do you think you will know at what point contamination will take place?” said Mrs McIntosh.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is a Project Editor with The Irish Times.