AGRICULTURE Minister Simon Coveney has defended a delay of almost four weeks in notifying the public about the presence of horse meat in beef burgers.
It emerged yesterday that the Department of Agriculture had known about the first test results showing the presence of horse meat traces in beef burgers since just before Christmas. It was contacted on December 21 for assistance by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland -- which had got early test results in November.
As 10 million beef burgers were withdrawn from the market, it also emerged that one of the firms involved in the controversy had been audited just last month by his Department of Agriculture.
Bord Bia has been called in to help repair the damage to the international reputation of Ireland's €3bn food industry, which employs 100,000 people.
The horse meat controversy was even raised in the House of Commons, with British Prime Minister David Cameron saying it was a "completely unacceptable state of affairs".
And the revelation that one of the beef burgers containing horse meat was sold by Tesco led to a 0.7pc drop in the value of the company's shares on the London stock market yesterday -- a reduction of up to €360m (£300m).
Amid the continuing fallout, Opposition TDs have questioned why the public had not been alerted last month so that the frozen burgers could be taken off the shelves earlier.
But Mr Coveney said there had been no food safety risk – and that there had been a need to carry out further testing.
"If. . . you get a result like this, and there's no danger to human health, which there isn't, but if there is a significant reputational threat to an industry, you have to make sure those results are accurate," he said.
British supermarkets might have been selling beef contaminated with horse meat for years because of lax food regulations, experts said yesterday.
Its Food Standards Agency was criticised after admitting it had never carried out tests for horse meat on food sold in Britain.
Meanwhile, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland confirmed it had got initial findings about the presence of horse meat in beef burgers at the end of November.
But its director of consumer protection Ray Ellard said it had been crucial to get laboratory verification.
"When you go to companies with findings like this the first line of defence they give is always 'your lab is rubbish and your results aren't valid'," he said.
Its investigation is focusing on the extra protein additive, which was used to hold the beef burgers together. Mr Coveney said it had been imported from the Netherlands and Spain, although he cautioned against "scapegoating" these countries before the investigation was completed.
He said there was "no evidence so far" to show the two Irish processing plants that produced the burgers, Liffey Meats in Cavan and Silvercrest Foods in Monaghan, had knowingly brought in horse meat to use in their burgers.
The Department of Agriculture could not say last night which of these plants had been audited last month – and what the results had been.
Mr Coveney said he was confident it would not hamper efforts to break into the lucrative Chinese and US markets.
"Most of the meat product that gets exported out of Ireland is chilled fresh meat. This is a frozen burger market," he said.
Fianna Fail agriculture spokesman Eamon O Cuiv said cross-contamination could not be blamed when 29pc of the meat in one beef burger turned out to be horse meat.
Sinn Fein agriculture spokesman Martin Ferris called for the companies involved to be named, which Mr Coveney said would be done. And Independent TD Denis Naughten said somebody had to pay dearly for what was either a "deliberate act or gross incompetence".
Although traces of pigmeat were also discovered in beef burgers, Mr Coveney said that in one case, the manufacturer had revealed in its labelling that the burger contained 15pc pigmeat.
But the controversy has revived the debate over the food labelling regime, which allows for food produced here to be labelled as "Irish" even if all the ingredients are imported.
Labour Dublin South East TD Kevin Humpheys called for improved food labelling to be introduced as a matter of urgency.
It is a key issue for Jews and Muslims who do not eat pork.