Deal with the horsemeat offenders harshly

The agricultural and food industries have been stalwarts of the economy since the foundation of the State.

Over the last few decades, that situation changed with our entrance to the EU and our subsequent ability to attract electronics manufacturers, software development companies, higher technology products manufacturers, and the pharmaceutical industry.

Over these years, the agricultural and food sectors have also evolved, with the agricultural sector being engineered by the EU allegedly to address supply and demand related issues. As a result, the industry has contracted as many farmers took the opportunity to avail of EU money without having to actually work the land.

Yet the food industry remains a key component of the Irish economy. Indeed, companies such as Kerry Foods, Glanbia, and others are world players in the dairy products and food ingredients business. The meat industry has also developed, with Ireland becoming a major exporter of meat and meat products.

Unfortunately, we have a terrible habit of shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot. We have had to contend with “natural” disasters such as BSE, mad cow disease, and others that seriously damaged these sectors. Nevertheless, we came through them, often stronger than we had been.

We traded very successfully on our green reputation. In fact, as the world population grew and food supply started to become a major problem, we saw opportunities in our environment and in the productivity of our lands.

Along the way we, or at least some of us, also decided to milk the system for what it was worth. The Beef Tribunal was a case in point, and it cost a horrendous amount of taxpayers’ funds to investigate abuses within the sector. Unfortunately, nobody was incarcerated. Moreover, nobody learned any lessons, or if they did, they soon forgot them.

This brings us to the horsemeat affair. We all knew we had light regulation and self-regulation within the financial sector. We did not know that it also existed in the meat sector. We stupidly thought it safe to believe that lessons had been learned from previous problems, both natural and manmade. More fool us.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland had detected that “foreign” ingredients had found their way into some Irish-manufactured beef burgers. Horse DNA was detected in multiple samples of burgers in a number of producers. Blame was apportioned and responsibility allocated without much substantiation. Political spin abounded.

Today, two months after the authority discovered the problem, a few weeks since the populace found out, and five or so weeks since Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney was made belatedly aware, we are still not sure what really happened. It appears we do know which firm supplied the offending ingredients. We also know some producers used suppliers that were not approved by their customers. They have paid the price and Silvercrest alone is reported to have lost contracts worth tens of millions per annum.

Mr Coveney has stated that the controversy has had no discernible impact on markets outside of Ireland and the UK. The UK is a major customer of Irish products and the loss of that market is a serious issue.

It will create spin-off problems irrespective of what we might say or think. Consumer confidence can vanish in an instant.

We are, as a country, in deep financial and economic trouble. This affair has put more jobs, even a whole industry sector, at risk.

Mr Coveney stated that if there was fraudulent activity it would be fully exposed. If there was fraudulent activity, it borders on national sabotage or even treason and should be dealt with appropriately. Anything else is a betrayal of the Irish people.

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