Under a barrage of questioning from MPs, the chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), Alan Reilly, said its decision to begin tests for equine DNA in November last year was not based on intelligence but instead on “sound common sense”.
Mr Reilly told the committee on the environment, food, and rural affairs, that finding the Tesco burger that contained 29% horsemeat was “like winning the Lotto”.
He stressed: “If we hadn’t done [the testing] your citizens would still be eating horsemeat.”
Labour MP Barry Gardiner and committee chair Anne McIntosh challenged Mr Reilly on why the FSAI had not informed the UK’s Food Standards Agency at an earlier stage regarding its decision to begin testing for horsemeat, and about the initial positive results.
The committee focused on a meeting on Jan 10, suggesting the FSAI had not shared its knowledge of the positive DNA tests.
Mr Gardiner claimed the decision to begin testing for equine DNA must have been based on local intelligence that horsemeat was entering the beef supply chain — something Mr Reilly described as “a fantastic theory”.
“All I can say is that it is totally untrue. We carry out these surveys on a yearly basis. We just go out and take random samples. You can’t prosecute on random samples. We went back and took formal samples for sure and we have that evidence now.”
Mr Gardiner said Owen Patterson, Britain’s food minister, had told the Commons he had been informed by Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney that the testing had been intelligence led. He said former FSAI chief executive Patrick Wall had also indicated that intelligence had played a role in the testing regime.
“We certainly did not have local intelligence,” said Mr Reilly. “The only intelligence that we had was, I would say, common sense.”
Mr Gardiner suggested the likelihood of testing for the Tesco burger which contained 29% equine DNA could hardly be attributed to “the luck of the Irish”.
Mr Reilly said: “I have thought about that one burger and it was like winning the Lotto.”
He also said there was “scientific justification” that a burger containing horsemeat had been produced as far back as Apr 2012.
Mr Reilly said a centralised horse database was essential as currently, “the opportunity is there to tamper with passports”.
He added criminal prosecutions were under consideration pending probes by the Department of Agriculture and the gardaí.