Armies of inspectors no use against microscopic threats
Published 30/01/2013 | 06:00
If you put yourself on a pedestal you need to be awfully careful. Just when we were congratulating ourselves for our greenness and traceability along comes an Exocet missile to Ireland's food image in the form of the horsemeat controversy.
Have you noticed the Irish choreography in the early response to the controversy?
Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney, farmer spokesmen, Bord Bia and ABP all started out making almost identical comments and statements.
Given the pre-eminence of the Larry Goodman-owned ABP operation in Ireland, any slur on that company was a slur of the Irish beef industry. This company is too big to fail.
This was a time for everybody to don the green jersey, encircle the wagons and sing off the same hymn sheet. The phrase "only one burger out of 10m was found to contain horsemeat" was used on radio by several spokespeople.
We had the interesting scenario of the IFA praising the Minister for Agriculture for his Department's response to the controversy.
Inwardly everybody must have been fuming. Only a few months ago Bord Bia had launched Origin Green Ireland to showcase the integrity of Ireland's food. The issue is not that a little horsemeat was going to do anybody any harm. The fear is for the credibility of Brand Ireland.
Initially it was speculated that the horsemeat in the Silvercrest burgers was imported from Spain or Holland. Eventually last Saturday a statement from Minister Coveney confirmed Poland as the source of the Silvercrest horsemeat. Goodman has a meat plant in Poland but this was not deemed to be the origin of the errant ingredient. Presumably the Polish supplier will be named. ABP issued a statement saying that their group of companies never knowingly bought, handled or supplied equine meat products.
Nobody can tell where this horsemeat controversy will eventually end. Hopefully it will be a one-day-wonder, but already Ireland's beef industry has taken hits.
There was no evidence of cross contamination of other burgers made in the Silvercrest plant. Yet Tesco and Burger King have both stopped taking their burgers "as a precautionary measure".
In previous times a meat plant error on intervention or export refunds might have upset the EU Commission. Alienating a major supermarket group is in a different league.
Should ABP have been doing more to protect itself from the controversy which has enveloped them? What lessons should Ireland Food Inc take from this unfortunate episode?
The DNA technology has been around for decades. In the 1980s kangaroo meat was found in Australian beef exported to the USA. This did terrible reputational damage. As a result the Australian meat plants had to confine themselves to handling a single species.
The ABP group has already used the DNA technology to confirm the provenance of its Angus beef. Surely, given the risk of inferior and shoddy ingredients finding their way into cheap burgers, especially when coming from non-Irish sources, ABP should have been alert to this threat. At least the company has now committed itself to routine use of DNA testing.
Government agencies also need to review their approach to food safety and the protection of Brand Ireland. Too much energy has gone into chasing farmers. Not enough intelligence is being applied to counter the risks coming from outside the farm gate.
The last three food controversies – BSE, pork dioxins and now horsemeat burgers – all originated outside the farm gate.
The BSE came from the meat and bonemeal processing sector. Some argue that the dioxin scare happened because the Irish authorities failed to act on EU warnings on flame drying of feeds. A more enlightened inspection programme based on risk analysis and modern science could have averted the horsemeat episode as well.
Really the current practice of having an army of vets in factories checking lymph nodes for TB is two generations back from current best practice. Equally, responding to the horsemeat episode by placing permanent inspection in Silvercrest and other plants is not the solution. The bulk of the threats to food safety today cannot be seen by the naked eye. This is an era of lab tests and science. Self-regulation backed up with audits, spot-checks and heavy penalties is the way forward.
Food companies are taking more responsibility for food safety and food provenance. This trend should be fully formalised. Then there can be no doubting where responsibility lies when a problem arises.
Aircraft makers and pharmaceutical manufacturers do not have government inspectors on their production lines. They are self-regulating. They know that mistakes cost lives and could bankrupt the business.
Some will argue that too much is being made of the horsemeat contamination. The point is made that the whole episode is a non-issue on the Continent where horsemeat consumption is the norm.
However, culturally the Irish and British see horses in a different light and do not regard them as food.
I suppose it could have been worse. Dog and cat meat is regarded as a delicacy in China. We are now trading more food to that part of the world. Think of the local revulsion if dog or cat DNA was found in Irish burgers.