Horsemeat: Assurances needed, says Minister

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Clear quality assurances are needed before Northern Ireland’s health service considers returning to a supplier of burgers which contained horsemeat, the region’s health minister said.

Contaminated produce from Rangeland Foods in the Irish Republic was sent to hospitals north of the border, Edwin Poots added.

The range was withdrawn immediately once the problem was discovered.

Mr Poots demanded firm guarantees.

“We have discontinued using Rangeland burgers,” he said.

“I don’t think we will be going back to Rangeland unless they can clearly demonstrate that they have full and proper access to the chain that has delivered meat to them and they can ensure that there is no possibility of other products entering (the chain).”

The health and social care service in Northern Ireland, which includes hospitals and daycentres, spends around £2 million on fresh meat and about £100,000 a year on burgers. Rangeland is one of seven suppliers of frozen foods.

The minister said: “We are buying beefburgers, not those containing 30% horsemeat. If that is the product we are getting then we need to be satisfied that what we are getting is what we ordered.”

Horsemeat is much cheaper than beef, retailing for around £700 a tonne compared to £3,000 a tonne, and Mr Poots said somebody was saving money somewhere.

A Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) statement said: “The FSAI has been informed by Rangeland Foods that it is withdrawing some batches of frozen burger products from customers which contained beef supplied from Poland and have been found to contain equine DNA between 5% and 30% relative to bovine DNA.

“These burgers have been supplied to the catering and wholesale sectors and are therefore not on sale directly to the consumer.”

A Rangeland spokeswoman said the affected meat from the EU was processed in September.

Following consultation with the Department of Agriculture, the firm recommenced production at its Co Monaghan plant this month, on the basis that it was using only Irish raw materials.

“Rangeland has implemented a comprehensive DNA assessment of beef intake and products, and tests every batch before release to the food chain, for any trace of equine DNA,” she said.

“Responsibility to the consumer for the safety and integrity of the food produced by Rangeland is a central focus of its business.”

Northern Ireland’s agriculture minister Michelle O’Neill called a special meeting on the horsemeat scandal.

“I want to show leadership on this issue because it is so important we address the issue of public confidence. The other ministers who did not turn up will have to account for themselves,” she said.

A number of other executive ministers were invited to attend the briefing today.

Those who did attend received an urgent update from senior officials of the Foods Standards Agency (FSA) in Northern Ireland.

Farmers, retailers, agri-food organisations and the Consumer Council also met in Belfast today, concerned at the lack of a unified voice on the scandal and worried customer confidence had been lost.

They asked Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to hold a summit on the food supply chain as soon as possible.

President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), Harry Sinclair said: “We all agree that consumers must be at the centre of everything we do going forward in response to the horsemeat scandal.

“The entire food chain and government needs to work in a co-ordinated fashion and do what is necessary to ensure consumers can have full confidence in the produce they are buying.”

He continued: “To date this level of cohesion has been missing and it has left consumers uncertain as to what exactly is happening.”

Northern Ireland Independent Retail Trade Association (NIIRTA) chief executive Glyn Roberts said today’s gathering was constructive.

“NIIRTA is focused on moving this situation forward and we need to step up engagement with ministers and key stakeholders,” he said.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers discussed the latest developments with Ms O’Neill and said it was vitally important consumers were reassured on quality.

“I have been in close contact with my colleague the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Owen Paterson) and will continue to do so over the coming days,” she said.

“The UK Government recognises the importance of the agri-food sector to Northern Ireland’s economy and I am fully committed to working together with the minister and her department on a joint approach on the best way forward.