THE contagion is spreading. The vacuum of information and facts about the horse burger fiasco is gradually eating away at the confidence of the blue-chip food companies that had whole-heartedly bought into the Irish food sector.
This is now translating into tens of millions of lost revenue for the economy.
First there was the announcement during the week that Burger King was pulling the plug on the €30m annual contract that the fast-food chain has with Larry Goodman's burger factory in Ballybay in Co Cavan.
Within 24 hours, another gold-plated contract for Goodman's company, ABP, was in trouble. Waitrose issued a statement saying that it was ceasing to sell six burger lines produced by the ABP Dalepak plant in Yorkshire.
What is notable about both of these moves is that they happened despite the fact that nothing was found amiss with the burgers bought by either company. Waitrose stated that they had carried out their own tests on the burgers involved, which revealed that they were 100pc beef. "Our technical team visited the Dalepak site last week and were happy that our products were produced to our high specification and separately from other companies' products," they added.
In the case of Burger King, there has never been any suggestion that horse meat got into their burgers. Indeed, a separate dedicated line at the Silvercrest plant in Ballybay was used for producing the Burger King products only.
The moves highlight how delicate a thing confidence in food really is. They come despite ABP's assurances that they never knowingly bought or supplied horse meat.
The bottom line is that if big players feel they cannot totally trust the product they are buying, they will take their multi-million contracts elsewhere. What is shocking for those within the industry, from the workers in the plants at the centre of this controversy to the farmers worried about what price their cattle will make next week, is the scale of the fall-out from an issue that we are told has no safety implications.
Compare it to the last crisis to engulf the food sector, the pig dioxin scare. On December 1, 2008, Irish authorities were notified that highly toxic organic compounds were detected in Irish pig meat at levels that were up to 200 times the EU's recommended safety limits. Confirmatory tests were completed within five days and a total recall of Irish pig meat immediately followed.
Dire predictions of unwanted pigs piling up on Irish farms, thousands of job losses and huge losses followed as the world's newspapers splashed with Ireland's 'poison pork' story.
The whole saga ended up costing taxpayers over €180m, but Irish pig meat was back on the shelf within a week. Four years on, the pig sector posted record sales of €385m.
So why is a non-food-safety issue in beef burgers threatening to have even worse consequences than the dioxin crisis? The timeline involved highlights the frustrations that big companies must be feeling with the authorities' handling of the situation.
It is seven weeks since the Food Safety Authority (FSAI) first notified the Department of Health that it was initiating tests for equine DNA in beef burgers. It was two weeks later before officials at the Department of Agriculture learned that those tests were positive. However, there was no appetite to go public with this news in the days before Christmas, especially in a department that was reeling from the news of the death of its junior minister, Shane McEntee.
The next step was for the FSAI and the Department of Agriculture to go into the meat plants that were fingered by the test results, but it took another week before these visits were carried out.
The results from those samples didn't come back until January 11, already a month after the initial investigation started. Curiously, the Department of Agriculture chose to sit on these confirmatory tests and the matter wasn't brought to the public's attention until after the Cabinet meeting the following Tuesday, almost six weeks after the FSAI first looked into the matter.
Almost a fortnight on, and we still don't have answers to the key issues. Who took the decision to include horse meat in the supply chain? Where did it come from? What guarantees are there that this meat was certified to enter the food chain? How did this get by our supposedly 'world-class' traceability systems?
It is the absence of hard facts so many weeks after the authorities first became aware of this problem that has dealt costly blows to our food sector. The only hope is that somebody gets to the bottom of this before the bottom falls out of our €2bn beef industry.