Tuesday 10 December 2019

Darragh McCullough: Food sector seems incapable of sorting out its own mess

The decision by Tesco and Aldi to terminate their burger contracts with Larry Goodman's Silvercrest Foods and introduce DNA testing for their meat was refreshingly clear-cut.

For the past 10 days we were being forced to wade our way through spin and red herrings.

First we were told that the suspected ingredient responsible for Tesco burgers ending up with 29pc horse DNA in them was some kind of protein-powder-cum-filler.

It has since transpired that it was actually blocks of frozen meat imported from Poland.

Mr Goodman decided to end his 25-year hiatus with the media by telling a reporter that the Food Safety Authority's DNA analysis could have picked up traces of horse from "the air".

At the same time, farming leaders were shooting the messenger and pointing fingers.

Irish Farmers' Association president John Bryan criticised the Food Safety Authority for publishing the results when they did, while the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers' Association blamed big supermarkets for putting suppliers under unbearable pressure to supply food at rock-bottom prices.

These kinds of responses have done the Irish food sector no favours. The fact remains that our much-vaunted food traceability systems have let us down.

Ironically, it appears that the much-criticised supermarket chains will be the ones who lead the way out of this mess.

Tesco's decision to introduce DNA testing across its meat products will give consumers the confidence that the best technology available will be harnessed to assure the integrity of our food.

Contrast this with announcements by the Department of Agriculture that it was going to put more inspectors in the meat plants. What good will that be to combat a problem that can't be seen by the naked eye?

The British retail giant claims that it will bear the cost of any such system.

In reality, Tesco is raising the bar for all supermarkets. The consumer will be the winner.

And what about the wider impact to Ireland's food image? The food marketing agency, Bord Bia, assures us that this story hasn't ruffled feathers beyond Britain. Instead, it would appear that Poland's massive beef industry, which employs 100,000 and exports 80pc of its output, is now in the spotlight.

Closer to home, it is possible that the loss of any burger contracts by Silvercrest could be ringfenced to Ireland. The Tesco statement said that it planned to "open discussions with other Irish beef processors in relation to the sourcing of frozen burgers in the near future".

Burger King has also publicly stated that it wants to continue sourcing burgers from either Ireland or Britain. That's good news for the other big players in the Irish meat industry.

The Waterford-based Dawn Meats already supplies thousands of tonnes of burgers to McDonald's branches all over Europe. Co Meath-headquartered Kepak is another home-grown alternative that would have plenty of firepower.

The future for the Silvercrest plant looks a lot less rosy, however. It remains shut, with all of its 114 staff still on full pay. But how long that can continue without its most valuable contracts is anyone's guess.

Together, the Burger King and Tesco businesses were worth €45m a year, and could have accounted for three-quarters of the plant's total output.

The parent company, ABP, has been incredibly reticent with the media, issuing the bare minimum of statements. Its latest one said that it was instigating new auditing procedures and DNA testing with the aim of becoming "an industry leader in this area".

But as Tesco said, "the breach of trust (by ABP's Silvercrest) is simply too great" to be overlooked.

Mr Goodman has built a €2bn beef empire on the back of Irish beef. But he may need to take a harder look at how that empire operates before he can regain that other priceless commodity: trust.

Irish Independent

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