News Analysis

Thursday 18 September 2014

Declan O'Brien: Findings sure to take a bite out of Ireland Inc's credibility

Published 16/01/2013 | 07:00

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MOST farmers and even beef factory personnel were stunned when told the results of Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) investigation into beef burgers produced here in Ireland.

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The first question everybody asked was how could horsemeat end up in a plant producing beef burgers – and to such an extent that it made up 29pc of the meat content of one burger?

The second query invariably dealt with the possible reputational damage that the controversy could inflict on the Irish beef industry.

The stakes for Ireland Inc are very high.

The vast bulk of the food this country produces is exported and revenue from this trade totalled €9bn for the first time last year.

Beef exports accounted for €1.9bn of this figure, with close to 85pc of the country's output being shipped to overseas markets.

How this scare will impact on these markets depends on how seriously it is viewed by international buyers and the response of the authorities here at home.

The concern is that the reputation of Irish beef could take a serious hit.

The Irish meat industry prides itself on being extremely tightly regulated and the country has secured some of the most lucrative markets in Europe and the world on the back of its quality standards.

The days of Ireland dumping the vast bulk of its beef into intervention stores are long gone. Irish beef is now to be found among the premium cuts on the shelves of Britain's supermarkets and Europe's top retail outlets.

Slick

It has secured these contracts on the back of very slick marketing on the part of the state body Bord Bia – that has portrayed Irish beef as a safe and naturally produced product – and strict traceability schemes that have assured consumers that Irish produce could be tracked from 'farm to fork'.

While this assertion may still hold true for the vast majority of the 1.4 million cattle killed in Irish beef plants last year, this latest controversy has shown that our procedures are far from water-tight.

The company at the centre of the storm, Silvercrest Foods, has claimed that a continental third-party supplier to the burger plant is being investigated as the possible source of the horse meat.

This highlights again the international nature of the food industry and how standards enforced on livestock producers here at home may be circumvented, often unintentionally, when you have secondary processing of ingredients.

However, while the focus of the investigation appears to be on the horse meat sample at the moment, the presence of pigmeat in 23 of the 27 samples tested is equally worrying.

Practising Muslims don't eat pigmeat. And given the growing size of Europe's Muslim population, any suggestion that Irish beef burgers might be contaminated by pigmeat could have serious implications.

Bord Bia CEO Aidan Cotter described the controversy as a "disappointing development".

"Bord Bia is liaising closely with the FSAI and the Department of Agriculture to provide all the necessary assurances to overseas customers where required," he added.

The country's 120,000 livestock farmers will be the first to be hit if the fallout from this controversy is as bad as some fear.

Should demand for Irish beef falter, then prices will invariably fall.

IFA president John Bryan said the presence of other meats in the burgers was "unacceptable" and he said "nothing or no one" could be allowed compromise the high standards and reputation of Irish food.

IMSA president John Comer insisted that the reputation of Irish beef could not be allowed to be compromised.

Irish Independent

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