Horsemeat scandal is now a runaway train that could yet derail our export markets, writes Jerome Reilly
The horsemeat-in-beef-burgers scandal is now a fully fledged economic crisis for this country. With further DNA test results due to be released in the next 48 hours, Ireland's multi-billion agribusiness – a beacon of light during the recession – could be extinguished for months and the country's reputation as an international food producer may be damaged beyond repair.
Since last Tuesday's announcement, greeted with tabloid puns and strident government and food agency claims that human health was not at risk, the crisis has deepened with each passing day.
It is now a runaway train that could yet derail the lucrative export market for Irish processed meat products and cost the economy millions of euro. By Friday, the full fallout over the horsemeat controversy was becoming clear: the damage included immense reputational harm to not just Irish meat processors found to have produced burgers with equine DNA but the overall food industry here.
Reputational damage to major international companies will also cost Ireland dear in lost business – even though it now appears likely that the source of the contamination was a bought-in additive from either the Netherlands or Spain, though the Spanish have denied involvement.
Tesco – where one of its Irish produced "Value Range" burgers had 29 per cent horsemeat – lost €300m of its market value in one day. Burger King was revealed as using one of the Irish suppliers at the centre of the storm. It has insisted its meat was produced and stored separately at the plant with none of the additives or fillers thought responsible for the contamination. Nevertheless, the global fast-food giant is carrying out its own separate investigation.
Burger King said: "We would like to reiterate that all Burger King products produced by us are stored separately and manufactured on an independent line. There is no evidence of any contamination of raw material used for the manufacturing of any Burger King products."
Asda, the Co-op and Sainsbury's – three of the biggest supermarket chains in Britain with turnovers running into billions of euro each year – started clearing their shelves of frozen beef burgers as a precautionary measure even though they were not among the four retailers ( Dunnes Stores, Lidl, Aldi and Tesco) found to be unwittingly selling burgers contaminated with traces of horsemeat.
The supermarkets delivered hammer blows to Ireland's reputation as a food-exporting country. The Co-op said: "We can confirm that we take two lines of frozen own-brand beef burgers from Silvercrest Foods [Ballybay, Co Monaghan]. Neither of these products have been implicated. . . however, we are treating this matter very seriously and, purely as a precaution, we are removing them from sale."
Sainsbury's said: "All our burgers are made from 100 per cent British beef but as a precautionary measure we are withdrawing those sourced from Dalepak."
The Food Standards Agency in Britain has launched its own investigation.
More worryingly still, the Government's claims that there is no threat to human health is already being questioned by at least one respected source.
The Society of Chief Officers of Environmental Health in Scotland said burgers containing horsemeat could have been made from diseased or injured animals.
Society chairman John Sleith said: "We note that statements are being made that it is not a health issue, but our concern is there is no information on how the horsemeat came to be in the burgers and so there is no way of telling whether the meat is safe to eat. It could be from diseased or injured animals, for example."
It's hard to argue with his logic. If you didn't know there was horsemeat in the burgers in the first place, how can you vouch for its provenance?
According to Bord Bia figures, the UK – with its population of 62 million and who, like the Irish, are not culturally inclined to eat horsemeat – is the main destination for Irish food and beverage exports, with a little more than €3.2bn worth of produce exported to the British market last year.
Bord Bia said on Friday it is continuing to work closely with Irish beef exporters to reassure overseas customers.
So deep is its concern over the reputational damage that it has carried out a statistical survey of online news sources. So far, it says, the impact has been limited outside of Ireland and the UK. In all, 4.4 per cent of online news stories related to the horsemeat issue.
"Accordingly, there is little or no impact to date on trade beyond the Irish and UK markets," Bord Bia said.
So why look for horsemeat in cheap beef burgers but not look for traces of, say, chicken or lamb?
That's the question those who suspect a possible conspiracy are asking in the wake of the controversy that now threatens jobs in the meat-processing industry and will probably lead to the destruction of 10 million frozen meat patties – as well as another 3.7 million burgers which were produced in the past week.
In all, 100,000 people are employed in Ireland's food industry and it will be months before the impact can be assessed – even if there is no danger to human health.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) insists that its tests carried out on cheaper "value" burgers in various supermarkets were completely random; that it had no advanced information and there was no whistleblower pointing it towards possible equine "contamination" in bovine food products.
Raymond Ellard, FSAI director, told the Sunday Independent: "We went to retail outlets. We just took 27 samples, which, as it happens, came from five different production plants in Ireland plus some in the UK. Did we cover every factory that is producing burgers in this country? Probably not. We could have looked for sheep or chicken but we didn't. The more you test the more it costs, so we were just having a 'look-see', to be honest with you. We didn't expect to find anything as startling as we did find. We picked those two species and said 'let's have a look'."
Pressed further, he insisted that looking for equine DNA was completely random – a shot in the dark.
"I know people will say, 'there's no smoke without fire, they must have known something', but we didn't. We have done this type of random process before. We went to fish and chip shops and took samples of fish and asked, 'okay, they are selling it as cod, I wonder if it is actually cod?' and then in some cases it turned out not to be. It was pollock or whatever.
"We have also looked in the past, using similar technology, for the presence of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). In this case, relating to burgers, we simply said, 'okay what will we look at this year? We will take a look at beef and we will just see if there is anything else in them'."
In all, 27 beef burger products were analysed, with 10 of the 27 products (37 per cent) testing positive for horse DNA and 23 (85 per cent) testing positive for pig DNA.
In addition, 31 beef meal products – shopping-trolley staples such as cottage pie, beef curry pie and lasagne – were also analysed. Of these other beef products, 21 were positive for pig DNA but all were negative for horse DNA.
All 19 salami products analysed tested negative for horse DNA.
But traces of horse DNA were detected also in batches of raw ingredients, including some imported from the Netherlands and Spain which are used in the production of burgers.
In simplistic terms, it's a "beef" powder – meat protein used to bind burgers. Spanish meat producers yesterday insisted they had sold no horsemeat to the UK or Ireland for at least two years.
Confecarne, which represents the industry, insisted Spain was not to blame for the scandal.
A spokesman said Spain did not sell "a single kilo" of horsemeat to the UK or Ireland in 2011 or 2012. The spokesman added: "Spain has quickly been blamed in order to divert attention from a problem they have over there. This false allegation could do a lot of damage to Spanish products."
While the FSAI findings suggest imported additional products may be the source of the equine contamination, this is not yet proven, though the results of further tests released on Thursday night appear to have narrowed the source of the contaminant down to one imported product.
The beef burger products that tested positive for horse DNA were produced by two processing plants, Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and one plant, Dalepak Hambleton, in the UK.
Silvercrest Foods and Dalepak Hambleton are part of the ABP Food Group – the international meat empire headed up by 75-year-old Larry Goodman – a controversial but low-key figure these days who was a central figure in the Beef tribunal more than two decades ago.
Mr Goodman remains one of the country's richest men, having rebuilt his empire after his tribunal difficulties.
In his first interview for more than two decades, Mr Goodman said that cost-cutting by his company was not to blame for the contamination.
Mr Goodman said he was "disgusted" by some of the media coverage he had read and said his company had never traded in horsemeat.
"We are talking about DNA testing and DNA will pick up molecules and something in the air," he told the Financial Times.
"I would not be surprised if there was cross-contamination of various species if one were to do DNA testing."
He admitted there was intense pressure from retailers on cost but this did not mean that ABP Food Group, the parent company of Silvercrest and Dalepak Hambleton, used inferior products.
However, the president of the ICMSA, John Comer, has said that farmers on the ground have no doubt that a very significant factor in this week's burger controversy and other previous food controversies are a direct result of the relentless pressure being exerted on processors throughout the EU by the supermarket multiples to supply food at progressively cheaper prices.
The beef burgers that tested positive were on sale in Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Lidl, Aldi and Iceland.
In nine of the 10 beef burger samples from these retailers, horse DNA was found at very low levels. However, in one sample from Tesco, the level of horse DNA indicated that horsemeat accounted for approximately 29 per cent relative to the beef content.
It was that single sample that found that horsemeat accounted for about a third – relative to beef content – of a "beef burger" that is most problematic.
This wasn't just trace elements of DNA that could have been picked up by tests at aerosol levels. For example, transporting beef product in a refrigerated truck that had once been used to carry horsemeat products could account for a positive test for horse DNA even if the truck had been professionally cleaned and disinfected to a high standard.
The FSAI's Mr Ellard defended the delay of more than four weeks between the positive tests for equine DNA and the results being made public.
He said it was partly as a result of surprise at the initial findings and the realisation that the results would cause controversy. The FSAI concluded it had to be 100 per cent accurate. As a result, a second batch of tests were carried out and analysed here and further tests were carried out in Germany to ensure the results were correct.
When the positive test for equine material was discovered, further tests were carried out on the composition of that equine material to see if there were any traces of phenylbutazone, otherwise known as "bute", the anti-inflammatory drug used to treat injured horses but which is banned for human consumption. None was found.
Mr Ellard pointed out that if a horse is administered bute in its lifetime, it is stamped on its horse passport and so should not make its way into the human food chain.
There is a processing industry in Ireland relating to equine meat targeted for the export market. About 20,000 horses are slaughtered in this country each year. The market is small but growing and Mr Ellard says that the same rigorous checks on horsemeat are carried out as occurs in beef factories and slaughter houses.
"There is a vet present. The animals are examined before slaughter and afterwards. There are checks on identity and for the presence of contaminants as there is in the beef or lamb or pig industries," he said.
But while that is true, the presence of equine DNA in a beef burger and, more saliently, the presence of a large proportion of horsemeat in one specific sample remains a mystery – despite the insistence there being no intrinsic threat to human health.
Professor Alan Reilly, chief executive of the FSAI, said that while there was a plausible explanation for the presence of pig DNA in these products due to the fact that meat from different animals was processed in the same meat plants, there was no clear explanation at this time for the presence of horse DNA in products emanating from meat plants that did not use horsemeat in their production process.
"In Ireland, it is not in our culture to eat horsemeat and therefore, we do not expect to find it in a burger. Likewise, for some religious groups or people who abstain from eating pigmeat, the presence of traces of pig DNA is unacceptable," he said.
The further test results released on Thursday night did provide some clarity.
They confirmed that nine out of 13 samples of finished burgers at Silvercrest Foods taken this week tested positive for the presence of equine DNA. It also confirmed seven samples of raw ingredients were tested, one of which, sourced from another EU state, tested positive. All ingredients in the production of burgers sourced from Irish suppliers tested negative for equine DNA.
A final positive identification of an imported product as the source of the equine DNA and horsemeat in Irish-produced burgers is getting closer, but every day that passes without a conclusion will cost this country dear.