When foreign horse became Irish beef

County View

County View
John Healy

It was just ten years ago, and it was anything but a happy new year when an explosive food scandal threatened to undermine the Irish food industry. For the inspectorate team of the Food Safety Authority (FSA), it had been a particularly stressful Christmas.
Early in December 2012, a routine check of frozen beef burgers from a number of supermarkets had yielded devastating findings. The inspection found that one third of the so-called beef products actually contained horse meat, while 85 percent contained pig meat. It was a horror discovery, bordering so much on the incredible that inspectors were slow to accept the evidence.
Further tests were carried out over the following weeks, but the results were incontrovertible. On one particular testing day in December, out of 27 samples of beef burger selected for testing, 23 were found to have pig DNA, and ten contained horse meat.
When a beef burger from Tesco was found to contain 29 per cent equine DNA, it was time to call halt. The product had been supplied by Silvercrest, a subsidiary of the massive Irish food processor, the ABP group. Silvercrest had also supplied Dunnes stores, Aldi, Lidl, and Iceland; within hours, every Silvercrest product – and especially its frozen beef burgers – were withdrawn from the shelves of all five retailers.
By now, the Irish FSA had alerted fellow regulatory bodies across Europe, and the blame game started in earnest. In a bid to quell public anger and disquiet, regulators were at one in proclaiming that the findings, upsetting as they were, did not constitute a health issue – eating horse meat might not be to everyone’s taste, but it did not cause health damage. (But public outrage was hardly assuaged when it was revealed that Aintree racecourse had a contract to remove dead Grand National horses to a slaughter house in west Yorkshire.)
Soon, 13 European countries found themselves embroiled in the scandal, with every ‘beef’ producer pointing the accusing finger further back along the supply chain. To much public cynicism, a Department of Agriculture enquiry concluded that ‘there was no evidence that Silvercrest had knowingly used or purchased horse meat’. The failure, it found, was a question of lax EU regulation, mismanagement, and quality control deficiencies, rather than of exploiting the vast price differential between horse meat from eastern Europe and genuine beef from Ireland.
As the scandal made world headlines, the parcel was being passed at lightning speed from one country to the next. At a cold storage plant in northern Ireland, huge blocks of frozen meat were found to contain 80 per cent horse meat. The supplier, a meat broker called MacAdam Foods, pleaded that it had bought the meat in good faith from Flexi Foods, in Hull, who in turn claimed it had innocently imported the meat from Poland and Romania.
Attempts to hang the entire blame on abattoirs in Romania foundered when a French government inquiry found that the suspect meat had left Romania clearly and correctly labelled as horse meat, but it had been later relabelled as beef. Now it was the turn of Spanghero, a French meat processor, which ‘knowingly sold horse meat labelled as beef, falsified documentation, and shipped a thousand tonnes onto the European market in the space of six months’.
By the time the dust settled, to the great relief of the Government, Ireland had come out of the experience unscathed, having actually won much praise for exposing the scandal in the first place. The country’s retail butchers enjoyed an upsurge in business and a chastened beef industry conceded that the day of self-regulation, loose oversight and the cutting of corners was at an end.