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Statement by Minister Simon Coveney TD on Department's Report into Mislabelling of Processed Meat Investigation

Two months ago to the day (on 14 January) my Department was first informed by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland of its finding of 29% equine DNA in a single beef burger sold in Tesco and manufactured by the Silvercrest plant in Co Monaghan. This finding in the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) meat authenticity survey resulted in the immediate launching of an official investigation.

This investigation, initially involving the FSAI and my Department’s veterinary inspectorate and audit team, was broadened to include the Department’s Special Investigation Unit and the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigations.

On 5th February I appeared before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I gave a detailed statement to that Committee and both Professor Alan Reilly of the FSAI and I answered many questions on these matters. The controversy has moved on considerably since that date and meat products have been withdrawn in many countries.

The disclosure in Ireland of adulteration of beef products with equine DNA has prompted other authorities to examine this issue. It transpired that what had been uncovered was a pan- European problem of fraudulent mislabelling of certain beef products. Almost all Member States have been affected by the problem. Indeed it has been uncovered outside of the European Union. It became a global problem affecting some large global companies and international food brands.

Today I am publishing a report on the official investigation and related matters. It will, I think, demonstrate both the complexity of the problem uncovered and the thoroughness with which it was approached.

I propose to refer to three main areas.

But before I do so I want to state clearly that consumer confidence and trust is the most vital component of our policy relating to the broad food industry.

Without consumer confidence and trust there is no future for any of the participants in the food supply chain whether they are retailers, processors, traders or primary producers. There is a clear onus on all the participants to ensure that safe and quality food products are placed on the market.

Ireland’s reputation as a food producing country rests on all participants fulfilling this responsibility. Any potential risk to that reputation, albeit in a relatively small segment of the food sector, was the basis for the immediate launching of the official investigation and for the actions I have taken in the course of the investigation.

The Investigation Outcome

I wish to highlight a number of points.

The equine DNA found in consignments of frozen beef products was labelled to be of Polish origin. The investigation has not found any evidence of adulteration with horsemeat of these consignments in Ireland but in this regard, following our enquiries, there are clear concerns about the activities of traders/intermediaries operating outside the State. Information uncovered in the investigation has been passed to the appropriate authorities and Europol.

That is not to suggest that intermediaries in the supply chain were the sole cause of the problem. The investigation has also shown direct trade with Poland. In the case of one Polish company, whose product was found positive for equine DNA, the Polish company arranged to collect the consignment and reimburse the Irish operator (QK Meats).

Details of the investigation outcome in respect of the main companies involved are provided in the report.

The investigation concludes that in the case of Silvercrest and Rangeland Meats there was no evidence that they deliberately purchased or used horsemeat in their production processes or that these companies were relabeling or tampering with inward consignments.

Given the reputational issues for the Irish food industry as a whole, I believe the practices by two companies of not respecting customer specifications (in case of Silvercrest) and of knowingly withholding information about problems in the supply chain (in case of QK Cold stores) are totally unacceptable. Likewise I am extremely concerned at the failure of ABP to maintain proper oversight of Silvercrest. We have a right to expect better from the Irish food industry. The companies have let themselves down as well as risking reputational damage to the Irish food sector itself.

B&F Meats was found to be involved in mislabelling of a limited quantity of horsemeat for export to the Czech Republic. While the company claims that no fraudulent intent was involved, the placing of a false label on a product and the question of instituting legal proceedings in this respect remains under consideration.

EU actions

When the problem widened to include other Member States I convened a meeting of other Ministers and the Commission in Brussels which led to the establishment of an EU-wide testing programme both for equine DNA in beef products and phenylbutazone in horse carcases. The results of these tests will be published in mid-April and will form the basis for consideration of any future EU actions. It was also agreed that Europol should be involved in terms of coordinating the investigations being carried out in Member States.

Acting in my role as Chairman of the Council, I also arranged a special debate on this matter under the Irish Presidency at the Council of Agriculture and Fisheries Ministers meeting. The Council agreed that it would keep the matter under review. 

Apart from the EU response, a range of additional actions have been put in place in Ireland at my instigation.

National Actions 

In addition to the EU programme, the FSAI and my Department met with representatives from the meat processing, retailing and catering sectors and agreed a protocol for DNA testing of beef products to check for adulteration with horse meat. The following categories of food are being tested – pre-packaged beef products on sale to the final consumer or to mass caterers, beef products offered for sale without pre-packaging to consumers or to mass caterers and meat ingredients used in processed beef products.   It was agreed that the results would be made public. The first set of results was published in early March. Most of the 957 tests were negative except for products already identified as positive. 

In addition to the EU-wide control programme for residues of phenylbutazone, my Department introduced a positive release programme for horses destined for the food chain. This programme will run for an initial period of one month and the results, once published, will be assessed to inform future policy.

Issues Identified & Future Actions

Although the Department will continue its involvement with investigations being carried out in other Member States and pursue any issues arising, the report draws a series of conclusions and identifies possible further actions.

Firstly it is clear that the focus of controls which heretofore was on food safety will henceforth have to encompass checks on food authenticity. The FSAI DNA testing protocol already in place in Ireland addresses this requirement. It is right that the Irish industry should lead the way in this respect but I will pursue this issue in Brussels to ensure a level playing field in respect of controls applying to EU food production.

I will also pursue the issue of requiring irregularities in relation to food authenticity to be reported.

This episode has revealed the extent and complexity of the involvement of traders and agents in the food supply chain. With the legal power already in place I have decided that all such intermediaries operating in Ireland will be registered as Food Business Operators.

A number of changes are warranted in relation to EU labelling regulations, such as provisions covering intermediate labels and reporting of mislabelling incidences, as well as practical steps on the use of security features and more detail on commercial documentation. These will be pursued at EU level as appropriate.

Finally, I want to refer to the related but separate issue of horse identification and traceability.

I should firstly express my concern at the incident which occurred only last Friday in Ossory Meats, a horse abattoir. This incident is detailed in the report. I had previously decided that, in the context of the measures we are taking to improve horse controls, that my Department should take responsibility for the supervision of this and another horse abattoir under the control heretofore of local authorities. What gave rise to the incident at Ossory Meats and the subsequent suspension of the plant is totally unacceptable but will be pursued with full vigour.  

In general, while the investigation did not uncover any illegal introduction of horsemeat into the food chain in Ireland, we have accelerated our review of procedures in relation to horse identification and controls. We believe there is need for significant changes here to move horse traceability to the same level as cattle identification, where systems were developed in response to BSE in the mid 1990’s. These changes are dealt with in the report and will be pursued by my Department.

In conclusion and in relation to this entire problem, I believe the fact the official control system in Ireland uncovered what is a global problem in terms of the serious mislabelling of beef and the manner in which we have addressed the issue shows Ireland to be at the forefront of control regimes. In time and when the issue is fully addressed at EU level it will stand to us in continuing to build the reputation of Irish food products.

 

See Publications 2013 page of this website for Report - click here

Date Released: 14 March 2013