The year of the horsemeat scandal

IT’S three months into the horsemeat saga and we might finally have run out of decent jokes.

Since the news that a Tesco budget burger had almost 30% horse DNA was announced in mid-January, the Twitter gags, Facebook posts, and memes have kept brisk pace with each development in the story. Now the torrent of revelations has slowed, and the flow of new comedy material has been stemmed — but if this expanding tale has taught us any lessons, it’s that anything can, and possibly will happen.

A voluntary Europe-wide DNA testing regime concluded recently and the results were published on Apr 15. The results provided the first European picture as to whether or not horsemeat is still inveigling its way into beef production, and if it is limited to product lines already found to have contained equine DNA, or if new product lines will require additional testing.

Within the giant supermarket chains, wary of any further undermining of consumer confidence, DNA testing has become a regular feature.

Investigations are still being carried out by the Department of Agriculture here, in addition to the gardaí, and at European level, Europol is conducting its own probe.

What began as a horse burger has now resulted in various types of alien material being detected in food around the world, and a renewed focus on what we as consumers are eating, how that food is made, and maybe whether the era of cheaper and cheaper food is coming to an end.

We are in the fourth month in the “Year of the Horse” and it may well be easier to list the areas of food production and the companies not involved in some capacity, such is the widening scope of the horsemeat drama.

Many of those companies are already back up and running, but various investigations continuing here and overseas, we are no closer to knowing exactly how this occurred and the identities of those responsible.

Since the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) blew the lid off the controversy with its Jan 15 announcement, the horse trail that began in factories in Co Monaghan has led all over Europe, which prompts the question: Does a pan-European problem need a pan-European solution?

Frederic Vincent, European Commission spokesman for health, and consumer policy commissioner Tonio Borg have stressed that the commission is being proactive in tightening up the parts of the food system which have been exposed by the horsemeat scare. In addition, last week’s testing results painted a more positive picture of the prevalence of horse meat and phenylbutazone, or byte, the anti- inflammatory given to horses and which can remain in a horse’s system for some time afterwards.

In all, 7,259 tests were carried out by the national authorities in the 27 EU countries, of which 4,144 tested for the presence of horsemeat DNA and 3,115 tested for the presence of phenylbutazone. Of those tests, 193 revealed positive traces of horsemeat DNA (4.66%) and 16 showed positive traces of phenylbutazone (0.51%).

Responding to the findings, the European Commission said they showed the issue was one of fraudulent labelling, rather than there being a threat to human health.

In tests for residues of phenylbutazone performed by the competent authorities, Ireland tested 840 samples, with just one proving non-compliant.

The UK tested a similar number of horses and found 14 non-compliant samples. Ireland also received a clean bill of health in the testing categories of controls of foods marketed and/or labelled as containing beef, looking for the presence of horse DNA.

Maybe the problem is not as bad as we all feared. In a joint statement published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) both agencies found the risks associated with phenylbutazone were of “low concern for consumers due to the low likelihood of exposure and the overall low likelihood of toxic effects and that, on a given day, the probability of a consumer being both susceptible to developing aplastic anaemia and being exposed to phenylbutazone was estimated to range approximately from 2 in a trillion to 1 in 100 million”.

So, what happens now? It is essentially a twin-track approach. On the one hand the commission had already asked for a report into “country of origin” labelling even before the horse story broke in January.

That report will be published “as soon as possible”, he says, probably in September.

The other aspect being explored by the commission is what Mr Vincent described as the “harmonisation” of approach among EU countries were a similar food scare to occur in future — namely, a Europe-wide mandatory testing regime, with increased fraud control across the continent and standardised penalties and sanctions for the culprits.

“The aim of the report [on country of origin labelling] is to see whether we could extend to processed food what we have now for fresh meat labelling,” said Mr Vincent.

“The label in that case would say the product included meat coming from a specific country.”

Or to take the original 29.1% horse burger, such a label would indicate that it was the product of Ireland and Poland.

However, if that sounds straightforward, think again. There are counter arguments to the plan, with some questioning the possible additional costs involved, which would be lumped on to the consumer.

“You could expand the debate,” said Mr Vincent. “Why only meat? What about flour, tomato sauce, olive oil? You could put anything on the label.

“The whole horsemeat crisis has nothing to do with labelling [anyway] — if along the chain there is someone who deliberately cheats and commits a fraud in the end the label will be wrong.”

Mr Vincent is not even sure he would describe the horsemeat issue as “a crisis”, but accepts that while it will leave a legacy, it may not necessarily be a more food literate shopper. He said there are reports which show that food crises change consumer habits, and others that indicate that people eventually fall back into their old shopping customs once the hubbub has died down.

“What we have been witnessing was not a health crisis; people got angry and rightly so, because they got cheated. We will have to see if this whole excitement we have been seeing is justified or if in the end the magnitude of the whole thing was limited.”

The key point regarding therecent round of DNA testing across Europe, is that it is a voluntary undertaking by governments keen to be seen as proactive on a particular issue.

According to Mr Vincent: “When you have a crisis like this in Brussels we cannot impose on member states compulsory testing.

“What we are working on is when we have a bigger crisis the commission will have the power to impose on member states the need to test.”

It would take the form of a proposal and, as with the country of origin labelling, it will need a vote by the member states. In other words, there is no guarantee that tougher rules enforceable by Brussels will come into force, or that the country of origin labelling may not end up as a simple “made in the EU” tag on a particular product.

In addition, continuous testing at retailer level is costly and the British Food Standards Agency has instead suggested a system of quarterly checks.

On the original horse burger, Tesco had been stocking it on the basis that it was made with materials sourced only in Ireland and the UK.

As the drama unfolded, it emerged that the trimming had come from Poland. Paul Finnerty, chief executive of ABP, owner of Silvercrest, has admitted that there was “a breach of trust”, with the company apologising to Tesco who in turn pulled the plug on their contract with Silvercrest.

The investigation that followed highlighted not just the extraordinarily complex food supply chain, but also the fact that no one was really to blame, and that everyone, to a certain extent, claimed to be the victim.

A media source working in Britain, who has been covering the horsemeat story since it broke, sums it up when she says: “There has been a blame game in which it is always someone else’s problem, and I don’t think that has been washing with consumers.

“It’s ludicrous how many victims there are in this. When you have western European governments and consumers and the media pointing fingers at eastern Europe, it raises some uncomfortable questions.”

Taking once again the original horse burger, last month’s Department of Agriculture report outlines how “the conclusions of the official investigation has not shown any evidence that Silvercrest deliberately purchased or used horse meat in their production process or that relabelling or tampering of inward consignments took place. It has not yet been established where the inclusion of horse meat in the implicated consignments occurred. It is clear, however, from the investigation that Polish ingredients were supplied direct from Poland, or through a number of different traders in Ireland and other member states.”

Two companies in Poland have been named in media reports but as yet, nobody can state with any certainty how the horsemeat entered the supply chain, and who was behind it.

There was also a Polish element to the Rangeland horse meat contamination, as per this section of the departmental report: “On January 31, Rangeland Foods notified the department of the finding of equine DNA in certain consignments of Polish labelled meat ingredients. The company indicated that none of these ingredients had entered the food chain. The department extended the investigation to encompass that plant and took samples of the material concerned on Friday, Feb 1, to test for the presence of equine DNA. The company voluntarily suspended production. Results of these tests showed 75% equine DNA in product labelled as frozen beef trimmings of Polish origin.

“In this case the raw material, involving three consignments, was imported through a trader based in Ireland [McAdam Food Products]. This company operates as a trader and has sourced beef supplies for both Silvercrest and Rangeland. The investigation established that the company sourced Polish labelled product from a UK-based trader.”

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney has not been sparing in his criticism of Silvercrest and ABP, which has certainly aggrieved some people associated with the firm. However, last Thursday’s announcement that the company was being sold to Kepak was warmly welcomed by the minister, who said: “I strongly welcome the announcement today that the ABP Food Group has agreed terms with the Kepak Group for the sale of the Silvercrest plant, subject to Competition Authority approval. While this is a commercial arrangement between ABP and Kepak, I would like in particular to acknowledge ABP’s commitment to the staff at the plant during the past months. The announcement today is good news for the companies concerned and for the Irish food industry generally. This is also very good news for the employees at the Silvercrest plant and local economy at Ballybay, Co Monaghan.”

Silvercrest may be starting afresh, but what of the remarkable developments involving QK Meats?

According to the department last month: “QK Meats subsequently admitted that, based on its own risk assessment, it had tested 15 consignments from nine of its 19 different Polish suppliers. Seven of these tests had shown to be, on a qualitative basis, positive for equine DNA. The first such positive test result was on Jun 27, 2012, and the company then contacted the Polish supplier whose representative visited the plant and arranged to take back the consignment.”

The UK media source who spoke to the Irish Examiner found this revelation “extraordinary”, while Paul Finnerty, ABP chief executive, used the same word. Elsewhere on these pages, he accuses QK Meats of “hardly acting in the national interest”.

Another issue that has come to the fore as a result of the horsemeat fiasco is the issuing of horse passports and the overall monitoring and regulation of horses in Ireland and the UK.

As far back as last summer, The Sunday Times was asking questions about possible deficiencies in the system, and following the breaking of the horse burger issue in January, the BBC Panorama programme and Channel 4 were among those focusing on the possibility of horses illegally entering the food supply chain, particularly north of the border.

Simon Coveney has now ordered the establishment of a centralised horse database, but events of last month showed that rogue elements were still at play.

As the departmental report of Mar 15 pointed out, the previous Friday, 25 horses were found at Ossory Meats in Co Offaly with incorrect identifiers. The minister himself referred to the “brazenness” of such a development given the heat on the sector following the horsemeat contamination. In addition, one facility issuing horse passports has been investigated and its operations suspended.

Beef farmers have queried why so many agencies seem to issue horse passports when the system for cattle is both slimmed down and watertight by comparison.

It would be easy to jump to conclusions and decide that the hundreds of stray horses picked up each year by local authorities are somehow making it into the food chain. Both a BBC Panorama programme and an edition of Channel 4’s Dispatches, focussing on activity north of the border, made similar suggestions. However, until the horse database is up and running — and there have already been some issues regarding the issuing of horse passports — it is difficult to arrive at a definitive conclusion.

One agency that is not hanging around is the European Commission. On its website last week following publication of the test results it outlined a number of steps it intends to take, among them that by the end of this month member states will have to report on the measures through which they enforce Union rules on horse passports, including the rules on the identification of horses and the measures taken to prevent that meat from unidentified horses enters the food chain, in particular by verifying how the passport of treated horses is completed following administration of phenylbutazone.

By the end of June this year a draft is to be presented to the standing committee on the food chain and animal health to amend Commission Regulation 504/2008 to make mandatory the recording of horse passports in a central national database, based on Animal Health and Zootechnical legislation. In the second half of 2013, states will be required to transfer the issuing of horse passports entirely to the competent authorities “and thereby reduce the number of passport-issuing bodies in the forthcoming proposal on Zootechnics”. Tougher financial penalties will be introduced as well as mandatory, unannounced testing.

What else has happened since the announcement by the FSAI in mid-January? Well, in France, there was a surge in demand for actual horseburgers, and here, craft butchers said they had seen more customers coming through their doors.

As Bandon butcher Martin Carey explains in these pages, it’s likely that many people want to receive extra assurances regarding what they are eating — and the over-the- counter contact with a man in an apron seems to fit the bill.

We have had the Iceland chief executive Malcolm Walker’s classic gaff, “well, that’s the Irish, isn’t it?” when asked about the FSAI’s testing regime and its results for some Iceland products. Yet contrary to Mr Walker’s view, and the company subsequently apologised, the British media source said, if anything, the forensic way in which the Irish agency FSAI has conducted its business has meant the British Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been seen as less proactive by consumers across the water by comparison.

Likewise, as some small scale Bord Bia surveys have shown, the horsemeat issue has not cast a negative pall on Irish food produce.

According to the media source, the Irish authorities were seen as the ones who uncovered a mess which has now spread like contagion across Europe, and attaching itself to larger retailers and producers, rather than particular countries.

A source close to the investigations which are continuing into aspects of the horse meat scandal here said of the initial revelation in January: “There was a level of surprise as to how widespread it was, that it was basically everywhere.”

In recent weeks, beef in Latvia has been found to contain horsemeat, there have been problems in Hungary, and horse DNA was found in chicken nuggets in Greece. It seems horses are everywhere, and according to the media observer, it may have been that for some people operating in the food supply chain, the equine apple was dangling tantalisingly from the tree — someone was always going to pick it.

“You have lots of additional horses going into slaughterhouses. Then you have massive blocks of [meat trimming], and seeing what’s in there is tricky.

“Then when you have a complex supply chain, it’s even trickier — you have quite a few separate factors that created a perfect storm that made this an obvious temptation.

“Having something on this scale you really have people acting in a similar fashion but acting independently.

“We are three months into this scandal and we still haven’t got clear answers as to who did what and when. Even the companies that have been defrauded can’t pinpoint it — that does not bode well.”

A departmental spokesperson summed it up when she said: “We have to find all sources of the problem.

“We just want to get it straightened out and get back to business.”

The media observer refers to the “cycle” that is a regular feature of food scares, and which has certainly been the case in this instance.

“First there are the jokes, then the magazines printing horse recipes and everyone asking what’s wrong with horse anyway.

“Then they go after the ‘dodgy foreigners’, and then finally it’s a case of ‘shit — it’s us as well’.”

The former lead singer of the Smiths and committed vegetarian, Morrissey, once sang that “meat is murder”, but the fun, games, and fallout from the horsemeat scandal brings another lyric to mind: “But that joke isn’t funny anymore, It’s too close to home, And it’s too near the bone…”

We will be stronger for this setback, says ABP Group

Silvercrest Foods: Changes were made to management and the firm's frozen foods division was disbanded.

It all started with the infamous horse burger. Many days must have passed since the discovery of the 29.1% horse DNA burger in which the ABP food group — and especially Silvercrest, the company which manufactured the burger — must have wished horses only existed during Cheltenham week.

Almost three months in, Paul Finnerty, chief executive of ABP, maintains that the company will be better for the bruising experience. It has also agreed a deal to sell the Silvercrest facility at Ballybay, Co Monaghan, to the Kepak Group, subject to Competition Authority approval.

“We are extremely disappointed by the whole situation but we have faced up to it, with our customers and the competent authorities, in an open and transparent manner. We have made substantial changes in our business. We will be stronger for this setback.

“We responded strongly and immediately by withdrawing 10m burgers from the market. Management changes at Silvercrest were made. We disbanded our frozen foods division. This now reports through our chilled business.

“Supply lines have been dramatically shortened. We no longer trade with meat traders, only directly from primary sites. And extensive DNA-testing protocols are now in place, whereby product is only released following testing results showing negative.”

The company certainly believes that it was a whipping boy for the controversy from the beginning.

“We were most unfortunate to be first ‘caught’ as a victim of the equine fraud and we had early mover disadvantage.

“For two weeks from mid to late-January it was an issue that seemed to revolve around ABP only. However, it then became clear it was a European-wide scandal.”

Referring to QK Meats, which was lambasted by the Department of Agriculture for its failure to pass on information that equine content had been found in imported trimming from Poland as far back as last June, he says: “What is extraordinary is that another Irish food company knew how horsemeat had infiltrated the industry and chose to say nothing — over many months prior to the crisis. In addition, at a time of intense international press focus on us and the Irish food industry generally, they chose to remain silent, this was hardly acting in the national interest.”

ABP does accept it could have done things differently. “It’s clear now that the standards that apply to fresh meat — which makes up 95% of our business (and indeed the industry’s) — are stronger than those that apply to frozen. In fresh there are no long supply lines, no middle men or meat traders. Frozen is different. The raw material is heavily commoditised, has a shelf life up to two years, and as we’ve seen, can change hands many times.

“Our approach has changed dramatically. We no longer deal with meat traders and only buy from primary sites, which we audit ourselves. And we now only use Irish and British raw material in our burger products.”

The company has taken a kicking in the last three months, including from Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney who last month, upbraided ABP. That criticism clearly rankles.

Finnerty says: “ABP has been at the forefront of the success story of Irish food exports for many years.

“We work hard with and for 20,000 farmer suppliers to achieve high value outlets for our fresh beef product Europe wide. We employ over 2,000 people in this country, most in the Munster region.

“While criticism of our business in the context of Silvercrest is fair, we were naturally disappointed by comments the minister made about the group. Since the issue first broke we have acted in an entirely open manner with all the competent authorities to get to the bottom of the problem.”

‘People feel they were conned’

People have started to ask, ‘What is going on here? What am I eating?’ says craft butcher Martin Carey.

Martin Carey has been a butcher for 35 years and has worked through a number of food crises, from BSE to pork dioxins. The latest one was a little different, he says.

Working from his shop in Bandon in Co Cork, he says the horsemeat affair has been up there with previous controversies, but that this one has had a more positive effect, [more] quickly” than the others.

“People have sat back and asked “what is going on here? What am I eating? We would find business is up considerably. It’s up 25% compared to this time last year, and we have had a lot of new customers.

“It has taken everybody by surprise and we are getting a lot of people now very interested in where their [food]stuff is coming from.”

As a traditional craft butchers working in Bandon for the past 25 years Martin knows his suppliers and also knows his customers.

“We do find our business is one of the last face-to-face businesses that there is. People are disgusted about this — they feel they were conned and they were cheated on.”

The newer type of customer does seem to include some younger people, both male and female, who might otherwise be seen stocking their shopping trolley in one of the larger supermarkets. Martin, who is vice-president of the Association of Craftbutchers of Ireland, believes they will stick with the butchers shops for their meat rather than return to their old ways as the horse meat controversy has made them question their eating habits.

“I really think what happened with that [the horse meat] just goes to show that globalisation of food is a major mistake, really,” he says.

“Of course there is a question of economics, but you have to have safe food, and food that people have confidence in. Where the chain is too long there is the possibility that something will go wrong,” he says.

As the horse meat drama issue continues to unfold, Martin believes labelling of food in terms of country of origin and content is essential.

“If you put something on a label you are making a statement and there should be general requirements that it is what it says it is.”

He takes a dim view of produce sold as Irish when it is simply processed here, and also the prevailing — at least, until now — notion that food in general will get inexorably cheaper.

While stressing the value for money of locally sourced produce, he says: “You can’t have good, cheap food. People need to make money out of it, they need to make a living.”

A growing interest in food preparation and cooking often fuelled by TV programmes combined with more rigorous scrutiny of supermarket profit margins may well contribute to the debate on the future of food production and retail. The craft butcher says any labelling should be the responsibility or retailers. Anything else, he says, is a cop out.

‘We were most unfortunate to be first’

ABP Food Group, the company that manufactured the first 29% horseburger via its Silvercrest plant, has said it was unfortunate and “inevitable” that it would become ensnared in the controversy.

Commenting on the first few months of the horsemeat scandal Paul Finnerty, CEO of the ABP Food Group, said the company had “early-mover disadvantage”.

ABP has received much criticism, including from Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, for shortcomings in the controversy.

Mr Finnerty said: “We were most unfortunate to be first ‘caught’... We had early-mover disadvantage. For two weeks from mid- to late January it was an issue that seemed to revolve around ABP only.

“However, it then became clear it was a European-wide scandal. Given our size in the market it was, with the benefit of hindsight, inevitable that we would get caught up.”

A report published last month by Mr Coveney’s department criticised ABP for, among others, a lack of oversight at Silvercrest.

The same report also highlighted how QK Meats became aware of equine content in some Polish-sourced trimming as far back as last summer.

Mr Finnerty said: “What is extraordinary is that another Irish food company knew how horsemeat had infiltrated the industry and chose to say nothing — over a period of many months prior to the crisis.

“In addition, at a time of intense international press focus on us and the Irish food industry generally, they chose to remain silent, this was hardly acting in the national interest.

“While criticism of our business in the context of Silvercrest is fair, we were naturally disappointed by comments that the minister made about the group.”

A Europe-wide testing regime was put in place with about 2,500 different beef products tested before the results were issued in April.

The European Commission is also exploring two separate avenues aimed at tightening controls over food supply lines — one a harmonisation of testing and monitoring standards as well as enhanced fraud controls and penalties; the other the possible introduction of “country of origin” labelling.

‘We were most unfortunate to be first’

ABP Food Group, the company that manufactured the first 29% horseburger via its Silvercrest plant, has said it was unfortunate and “inevitable” that it would become ensnared in the controversy.

Commenting on the first few months of the horsemeat scandal Paul Finnerty, CEO of the ABP Food Group, said the company had “early-mover disadvantage”.

ABP has received much criticism, including from Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, for shortcomings in the controversy.

Mr Finnerty said: “We were most unfortunate to be first ‘caught’... We had early-mover disadvantage. For two weeks from mid- to late January it was an issue that seemed to revolve around ABP only.

“However, it then became clear it was a European-wide scandal. Given our size in the market it was, with the benefit of hindsight, inevitable that we would get caught up.”

A report published last month by Mr Coveney’s department criticised ABP for, among others, a lack of oversight at Silvercrest.

The same report also highlighted how QK Meats became aware of equine content in some Polish-sourced trimming as far back as last summer.

Mr Finnerty said: “What is extraordinary is that another Irish food company knew how horsemeat had infiltrated the industry and chose to say nothing — over a period of many months prior to the crisis.

“In addition, at a time of intense international press focus on us and the Irish food industry generally, they chose to remain silent, this was hardly acting in the national interest.

“While criticism of our business in the context of Silvercrest is fair, we were naturally disappointed by comments that the minister made about the group.”

A Europe-wide testing regime was put in place with about 2,500 different beef products tested before the results were issued in April.

The European Commission is also exploring two separate avenues aimed at tightening controls over food supply lines — one a harmonisation of testing and monitoring standards as well as enhanced fraud controls and penalties; the other the possible introduction of “country of origin” labelling.

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