Margaret Donnelly: 'We must fight any threat to our hard-won reputation on food standards'

Fraud: Horses that were nearing the end of their lives or sick, and not fit for human consumption, may have entered the international food chain, gardaí believe. Stock photo
Fraud: Horses that were nearing the end of their lives or sick, and not fit for human consumption, may have entered the international food chain, gardaí believe. Stock photo
Margaret Donnelly

Margaret Donnelly

The revelation in 2013 that some Irish beef burgers had up to 29pc horsemeat put the Irish agri-food sector in the headlines worldwide.

The reaction of the world's press to the story stunned Irish authorities into action with a significant publicity campaign to turn the revelations into a good news story for the sector.

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After all, it was the Food Safety Authority of Ireland's diligent work investigating the content of meat products for sale here that led to a much wider investigation across Europe that found some meat products in Europe labelled as beef contained significantly more horsemeat than beef.

When the case eventually came to court, in London, we found out how a horse from Galway known as 'Carnesella Lady' was central to the trial.

The court heard how a complicated web of horsemeat trading across Europe, coupled with false paperwork and labels, saw horsemeat end up being eventually passed off as beef.

At the time, the Department of Agriculture said this was essentially a 'wake-up call' for what turned out to be a pan-European problem.

The then agriculture minister Simon Coveney told farmers he would "make damn sure" such an incident would not happen again.

But it looks like it has and a continued investigation into this wide food supply chain has continued and this time, for Ireland, it could possibly be worse, as gardaí have moved in to investigate suspected contaminated horsemeat.

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If it's found that meat from horses, destined to be destroyed as it's not fit for human consumption, may have ended up in the food chain, albeit for export markets, it has the potential to have severe economic consequences as our highly regulated food processing industry comes under the spotlight.

The gravity which Irish authorities attach to these type of incidents was emphasised again yesterday by the serious nature of the investigations and the level of co-ordination between the Garda's various elements, including the Criminal Assets Bureau, along with the Department of Agriculture and Food Safety Authority.

The incident once again highlights that complacency around traceability cannot be tolerated and we must ensure our food sector has the highest possible standards.

When horsemeat was detected in Irish beef burgers in 2013 sales of burgers plummet by more than 40pc.

While Irish food and drink exports are at record levels, some sectors are already under severe pressure from the impact of Brexit.

Our agri-food sector has exports worth more than €12bn and it's the potential damage to this industry that is most worrying.

We may not eat much horsemeat here, but we export horsemeat into international markets that look at the credibility of our food traceability and safety.

Irish food trades on its reputation abroad and key to securing access in new markets is our ability to prove we have a robust traceability and food safety system.

Only in February this year our Food Safety Authority announced it had a new DNA scanning tool to identify the entire DNA content of a food. It's those tools and determination that keep that reputation and produce from the €12bn agri-food sector on shelves worldwide.

We're leaders in traceability and quick to denounce other countries that don't meet our standards.

Our marketing of food is based on Ireland having a clean, green image. Think cattle grazing out in lush fields, producing the best and fully traceable dairy and beef in the world. Or Saoirse Ronan featuring in Bord Bia campaigns to enhance the country's reputation for sustainably produced food and drink.

Or so we like to believe.

However, a small underworld working illegally to use meat that's not fit for human consumption has the potential to contaminate the entire meat business and our reputation.

Individually, many Irish farmers are already under severe financial pressure with declining incomes. Recent figures show that thousands are already facing severe income challenges and a dent in exports could drive many out of business for good.

And now the wider food industry as a whole faces the impact of its reputation being severely tarred with the brush of those obviously willing to risk ruining the entire industry.

With food supply chains widening there is also a wider window for illegal activity to go undetected. But when it comes to food and Ireland's reputation in export markets, there can be no room for complacency over food security and traceability.

There must be zero tolerance of any illegal activity that threatens to undermine the good name of the majority in the sector, and those operating any illegal operations must face serious repercussions that also act as a deterrent to others.

There will always be a very small number of people who look to cheat the system or make a quick buck, but when there is so much at stake for our largest indigenous sector, it's essential we encourage and support the crackdown on illicit players.

Irish Independent

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