Galway county councillors this week questioned the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI ) over why Irish processors have not been prosecuted over the horse meat scandal when farmers are penalised regularly for not following regulations or failing inspections.
Professor Alan Reilly, chair of the FSAI, gave a presentation at the Galway County Council meeting on Monday during which he explained the investigations undertaken to uncover the full extent of the illegal adding of horse meat to beef products, the mislabelling of those products, and the “many challenges” associated with traceability. However, it was the prosecutions of those responsible that concerned many of the councillors who put it to Professor Reilly that while farmers have to adhere to strict regulations and contend with falling meat prices there is another law for the factories and large food processing businesses.
In his presentation, Prof Reilly said that the FSAI always has to be “mindful of trade, public health, science, politics, and comsumer protection” and works on ‘farm to fork’ regulatory control ensuring that all the links in the food chain are under control. He added that investigating the traceability and the origins of a food product can be a “global food maze” and the longer the food chain the more likely something can go wrong. Referring to the horse meat scandal that the FSAI undercovered more than six months ago Prof Reilly gave an example of one frozen burger that was found to contain 71 per cent beef and 29 per cent horse meat. “This doesn’t happen by accident,” said Prof Reilly before adding that as soon as the FSAI became aware of the situation the decision was made to go public with it, a move which resulted in similar cases being uncovered soon after in the UK and right across Europe.
“This was a massive issue that went undetected right under the noses of the food authorities in many countries,” said Prof Reilly who explained that one horse meat sample came from Romania, was brokered in the Netherlands, sent to Cyprus, then all around France, was manufactured into a product like lasagne in Luxemburg and then went onto the UK and Ireland and other areas in Europe. Showing an image of one frozen meat block he said there had been horse meat detected with an Irish stamp and a microchip from a Polish horse. Prof Reilly added that these blocks of meat were very easy to tamper with. He further explained that the practice of putting horse meat into beef products had been happening for nearly three years before the FSAI discovered it.
“The most important ingredient in food is trust, and that trust was breached by processors not just in Ireland but in other areas of Europe,” said Prof Reilly.
One rule for manufacturers and factories and another for farmers, says councillors
Cllr Jimmy McClearn told the chamber that farmers are very confused when they consider the level of inspections and standards they have to adhere to. “Has the FSAI learnt from this scandal? If the same level of scrutiny went through the whole of the industry then this should have been noticed sooner,” said Cllr McClearn.
“I think this is a most vital presentation as food is the most important item for people everywhere,” said Cllr Michael Fahy who added that the scandal was “horrible for the farming community” as “people thought the trade would collapse”. Cllr Fahy put it to Prof Reilly that the “people responsible for getting the horse meat into the market should be brought before the courts”. He added: “It’s a disgrace. Over the years the farming community have been hit left, right, and centre by the falling prices of cattle. There would be at least £150 in the price difference between a bollock sold in the UK and the same one sold in Ireland because the factories have been allowed to run amok, and reduce the price given for livestock, for the past 15 to 20 years. No more than the bankers, there is a different law for the rich and for the poor, and for the small farmers.”
In response Prof Reilly said: “Our responsbility starts at the farm gate. The farmers would be right to ask why they were getting away with it for so long. What Irish manufacturers were guilty of was buying cheap beef trim through brokers and traders. They didn’t knowingly buy product with horse meat in it. They have a legal obligation to keep records of who they are buying from. There could be numerous suppliers in different countries.” He further explained that in Ireland there were 26,000 horses slaughtered last year and up to 7,000 so far this year and that some could be chopped up into prime cuts and exported to countries like Italy, France, and Belgium legally. “Horse meat is safe, it’s used a lot on the continent. The law is broken by putting horse meat into beef products and there’s dishonest labelling. Tesco had been selling products that were mislabelled. I could go to court but it would cost between €200,000 and €300,000 to mount a case. Is that good use of public funds? They would say sorry, that measures have been put in place, and their suppliers let them down. The judge would probably give them the Probation Act and the maximum fine would be €30,000. These people are making huge money,” said Prof Reilly who assured councillors that the FSAI are not going easy on those responsible by carrying out thorough investigations