A year ago the Food Safety Authority of Ireland first alerted the world to a major meat scandal after horsemeat was found in beef burgers sold in some Irish supermarkets. The revelation prompted Europe-wide inquiries that confirmed a similar problem existed in many countries. The Department of Agriculture in its report on the scandal produced disturbing findings about practices in the meat industry. To date, however, no prosecutions have been brought against either companies or individuals for their role in the crisis. And it seems none are likely – much to the public's bewilderment.
One explanation offered by FSAI chief executive Prof Alan Reilly is that prosecution requires evidence of fraudulent activity in the State. But, as investigations concluded the horsemeat was imported, prosecution was not possible. Nevertheless, he has reassured the public that burgers and processed foods are again safe to eat. Meat bought or sold now requires certification by a laboratory. Testing to check authenticity of meat products has become the industry norm – a welcome outcome.
The scandal matters for many reasons. It has been a fraud on consumers, cheating those who bought beef burgers but who unknowingly consumed horsemeat. Because horsemeat containing the animal drug bute could enter the food chain, it was a potential health hazard.
The reputational damage to the Irish agrifood sector (accounting for some 10 per cent of exports) could have been – but fortunately has not been – considerable. In addition, it has underlined that cheap meat is not necessarily in the consumer’s best interest, as it can give criminal opportunists a way into the supply chain.
Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney has noted the swift action of the Irish authorities in exposing the fraud, thereby enhancing national credibility and ensuring damage limitation. One of the few to face court charges following the Beef Tribunal report 20 years ago was ironically, journalist Susan O'Keefe, who broke the original story. In yet another scandal involving the beef industry, few if any of those who are culpable are likely to face prosecution.