Suzanne Campbell: Scandal will rock confidence in Irish beef brand
NONE of us wants to bite into a beef burger that contains horse meat. But the DNA technology which has only recently become available to test food also lifts the lid on unpleasant truths in what we eat.
The Food Safety Authority of Ireland has made good use of DNA testing – unearthing in 2010 that a quarter of fish were a different species to the ones described on the label, and in the case of smoked cod, 92pc were not cod at all. No one died as a result.
But if this investigation continues beyond the lab and finds improper foods going into Irish slaughter plants, then we do have something to worry about.
Irish cattle for the beef trade in Ireland are farmed and slaughtered with exemplary care under the supervision of Department of Agriculture vets in meat plants. I've been in meat plants, and in many years writing about the food chain, we really do have good food traceability in Ireland.
Just as was the case with the dioxin scare in 2008, public health is not at issue. The more immediate problem is confidence in the Irish beef industry and there's nothing like the mention of horse meat to muddy the waters.
The Silvercrest plant in Monaghan and Liffey Meats in Ballyjamesduff are not licensed to slaughter horses. Nor are they involved in the processing of equine meat. So how did horse flesh get there?
Both firms maintain that ingredients (most likely bulking agents) came from abroad. We have to assume the best at this point.
We know that in Europe the movement of horses for slaughter into the food chain is highly unregulated. In terms of Ireland itself, horses come in and out of Irish ports relatively untracked. They do not wear ear tags nor are they individually identified as with cattle and sheep.
While horses are only accepted into the human food chain with "clean" passports – that is having had no prohibited medications like bute – (phenylbutazone, a commonly used anti-inflammatory in horses), I've been told by horse owners that this is not always the case.
An Irish Veterinary Journal report into welfare and disposal issues in the horse industry found that "the routes of movement, sale and disposal of horses are not well documented or regulated in Ireland".
More worrying is that Irish horse dealers, some of whom were visited for the report, "openly admitted that they did not necessarily seek horse identification documents (in contravention of the law) when sourcing horses as they could apply to a Horse Passport Authority of their choice for a new set."
There is a huge perception problem here. Irish beef is known throughout Europe and the world for its grass-fed quality and traceability.
Our beef exports were worth €1.9bn. Both the Silvercrest and Liffey Meat plants have product lines that are in Bord Bia quality schemes.
Have these otherwise well regarded food businesses fallen foul of a bad supplier? One mistake in sourcing meat content for a "value" line cheap burger will taint premium product as well.
In 2008, Irish consumers reeled at the news that Irish pork might have been affected by tainted animal feed. The "dioxin" problem was resolved quickly because of our good food traceability systems. Let's hope the same happens here, and more attention is paid to how horses enter the food chain, if at all.