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Food safety officials quizzed on horsemeat scandal

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The issue of horsemeat was raised on Tuesday during a Stormont joint committee meeting.

Officials from the Food Standards Agency, Environmental Health and the Department of Agriculture were questioned by members of the Health and Agriculture Committees.

Members may submit other questions in writing to officials from all the above agencies.

FSA Chief: We will continue to make this our priority and won’t shy away from putting any information we have into public domain.

2.45pm: FSA says it does have resources to deal with issue when questioned.

2.40pm Is it possible other foreign objects could be in the meat? FSA: We don’t know if we don’t know. We look at what’s happening locally, nationally and internationally. We look for what’s in the food that could potentially make people ill. It is the food operator’s responsibility to check that what they put on the market does not mislead consumers.

2.35pm: Committee member: Can you absolutely guarantee there is no risk to food and that food is safe. FSA: Nothing found in any tests to date. Committee member: Has the FSA done enough? FSA Chief: In our radar horse was not on our rader, it is now and we will continue to try and resolve this issue as soon as possible

FSA: Slaughterhouse in Lurgan that slaughtered sheep and cattle (Oakdale) but decided to stop for commercial reasons (not dealing with horses any longer). They had been slaughtering horses legally for three years.

Committee member: When did the FSA inform DARD? Answered: Info broke on Jan 15 and we informed them on the same day. FSA and DARD have worked closely together.

2.25pm: Committee Member: It’s been said that red meat sector could learn from white meat sector, what does that mean? DARD: Poultry sector is very integrated, very strict controls of everything. Beef chain is slightly longer. There is always room for improvement but I would argue our systems are at the forefront. Committee member: Perception is that imported meat is not subject to the same regulation.

Committee member: How can we guarantee there will be no negative effects on farmers when new checks and balances are brought in - which they need to be. FSA Chief: Minister is not inclined to pass costs to farmer but it is very difficult. Increased sampling and testing will likely pass costs onto supermarkets. Supermarkets will unlikely pass costs to consumer so it will probably be passed on down the chain. Hard to give you that guarantee that cost will not be passed on to farmers.

2.20pm Committee member: Is it possible that horsemeat has been in the system for a number of years? FSA: Potential it’s there as far back as May.

2.15pm: Committee member: When did you do the test on the beef in Newry? Answered: Jan 25. Committee member: If you decided in November you weren’t going to move beef, why didn’t you test it? Answered: There was no reason for us to be thinking of horsemeat. Clarified that meat found in Newry plant was never going to be going into food chain.

2.10pm: Committee member question: If you knew prices were low, why did you not put in place a quicker testing regime? FSA is at fault here. What will you do to restore confidence and enforce stricter labelling? FSA Chief: It is extremely difficult to tell the differences between the blocks of meat. Committee member: Why from end of September until January was nothing done about the NI problem? Maria Jennings: We were involved in checking paperwork and traceability, not presence of horsemeat. Therefore issue did not come in until ROI discovery of horsemeat presence.

2.05pm Maira Jennings: FSA talks to other countries and food agencies on a regular basis e.g. America, New Zealand etc. Wasn’t raised anywhere else so it just wasn’t on our radar.

2pm: Jo-Anne: Why are there so many instances here when the price is cheaper? Answered: Potential for fraud is there.. Jo-Anne: Surely processors shouldn’t have to look elsewhere as our meat is cheaper - unless people are trying to cut corners. Answered: There is a legitimate market for processed meat as people look for commodity beef for a commodity burger.

Jo-Anne Dobson: The farmers are the fallguys here. Do you think the links between farmers and regulators and processors need to be enhanced? Answered: Meat is sold from one dealer to another but responsibility is with processor to know what they are buying

FSA Chief: Already put in place enhanced inspection process. We will await the outcome of that to see whether there is anything we need to do from a regulator’s point of view.

1.55pm: Have food processors been driven to this by supermarkets in a bid to cut cost? FSA Chief: There is an incentive there for people to break down product and include horsemeat to turn 50 cases into 60 and make a profit.

1.50pm: In local butchers there is full traceability - but there seems to be a huge gap elsewhere. How does the food process business identify the risks? Maria Jennings: Important that we know where the meat comes from. If you can get it really cheap, there is a probably a reason why. FSA Chief: The problem is people supplying into the chain, the processing sector is particularly problematic in terms of tracing back.

Gerry McCurdy: Direction of our investigation is that fraud is possibly involved and towards Europe. It is extremely complex and not prepared to comment further at minute. Too early to say when this incident may come to an end. (can it not be brought to a conclusion within NI?) We hope to conclude investigation quite quickly but rest of investigation refers to movement of meat in and out of NI and cannot say any more.

Deputy Chair of DARD Committee said FSA UK Chief Exec said it is likely fraud is involved.

1.45pm: Deputy Chair of DARD Committee: Why was DARD so slow on this issue? Early February was the first we knew of the incident.

1.40pm: Deputy chair of DARD Comittee - Where did this originate? Also ask about circumstances at plant in Newry. FSA Chief: Confirms premises in Newry were inspected, there were irregularities found but to do with labels rather than horse. The situation in relation to the Irish investigation threw up relationships in terms of the movement of meat and identification of potential parties involved with that. Newry and Mourne Council Environmental Health chief: can confirm meat was detained and sampled in relation to horse DNA in late January.

FSA Chief: Whole issue of horsemeat was certainly not on radar up until authorities in ROI embarked on their investigations. We took over 3,000 samples of product for various matters but whole issue horsemeat was never an issue. (Asked how no traces came up?) The tests are specific, you would have to do a specific test for is beef/pork etc is present. (Jim Wells says people believed they had complete traceability after BSE) It is the responsibility of the food industry, rather than the regulator. That responsibility falls completely within the food business operator.

1.35pm: Deputy chair of health committee Jim Wells: After BSE, a terrible blow to farming community, were promised complete traceability from stable to table. But in all of that effort no-one has detected horsemeat in any of those processes? Wasn’t until Irish authorities stumbled upon this in Autumn last year. Why did no-one suspect or at least test fort his in 15 years between BSE and now?

1.30 pm FAS Chief (when asked about relationship between Food Industry and FSA): Primarily we are a regulator but clearly we need to work on a partnership. Not sure how breakdown in communication happened. Fully appreciate there could be a loss of credibility, find it unacceptable any part of the industry would withhold information. (referring to Findus removing product from shelves some days before informing FSA)

Maria Jennings (also FSA): Every single piece of intelligence we have will be followed up until we get to the bottom of what is happening.

FSA Chief: The FSA’s responsibility is to ensure Public Health is protected. The results of those tests will give us intelligence to have further investigation of coldstores which play a key role... We have put in place an enhanced programme of sampling...We need to separate the horsemeat issue from the trace issues of horsemeat and pork.

1.25pm Chair of DARD Committee: Headlines have been very confusing. With regard to authenticity tests, what is the ‘food industry?’ What results are to be out and when?

1.20pm: When meat is processed who controls that? FSA chief: Policy is controlled by FSA, administration of medicines is responsibility of Dept of Agriculture. Slaughterhouses are responsibility of FSA but delivered by service level agreement by Dept of Agriculture. Preparations and products are both a hygiene and composition and labelling responsibility of the local authorities.

Dept of Agriculture official: 40 horses a fortnight were slaughtered at abattoir in Lurgan which stopped doing so in recent weeks. Those are now being transported to Bristol for slaughter. Rumours that slaughterhouses were working out of hours, there is no proof of that. Abattoirs are staffed by qualified vets and officials and dept is satisfied those rumours have no grounding. We are not complacent but to date we have found nothing to substantiate any of the claims being made. If anyone has information come to us and we will investigate.

1.15pm: In relation to horses going through approved system, there is no slaughter of horses in NI here at the [present time. In terms of abattoirs in UK they are now subject to enhanced regulation. Awaiting results of tests carried out on animals there. Movement of horses and live animals is an issue for Dept of Agriculture officials.

1.10pm: Asked is there a guarantee that this isn’t a public health risk? FSA did a risk assessment which found that it is not due to how thoroughly food is generally cooked and well-prepared. Re the anti-inflammatories - understandable people are concerned, but even if the contamination is present it would be at very low levels. No presence of bute drug has been found.

1pm: Gerry McCurdy, Director of Food Standards Agency in Northern Ireland is addressing the Committees. Said it isn’t a food safety issue at this time. He said it is the number one priority of FSA at this time. Totally unacceptable for consumers to be misled. Extremely complex issue because of global movement of foodstuffs. Some 18 countries involved, over 30 companies involved and major retailers in UK and Ireland. Fraud is a real possibility, there are ongoing investigations but cannot comment further at this time so as not to prejudice potential further legal action.

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