‘Ulster gangs involved in horse meat scandal’

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THE USPCA says that organised crime gangs in Northern Ireland are involved in putting abandoned horses that are unfit for human consumption into the food chain.

And it has issued a scorching attack on governments north and south and accused authorities “across the island of Ireland” of responding with “denial” and “spin” in order to protect “vested interests”.

The animal welfare charity was speaking on Wednesday after the southern-based Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) found horse meat in products from Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland and Dunnes Stores.

It found some Tesco burgers contained 29 per cent horse meat. However the charity’s concerns were flatly rejected on Wednesday by professor of Food Safety at Queen’s University Belfast Chris Elliott, who said such claims were “speculation”.

A USCPA spokesman told the News Letter that “organised crime gangs are taking horses from Northern Ireland and they are being used and abused in this way”.

He said: “We cannot necessarily say that they are ending up in the Republic of Ireland, but they are undoubtedly ending up in Europe. We know the pet passport system is so unreliable and is allowing horses that should not, to get into the food chain. Horses that are unfit to travel and are at the end of their useful lives and which are unwanted are increasingly being abandoned. These are then being carted around Britain, put into holding compounds and brought into slaughterhouses. But to make these animals suffer even more is wrong.”

He said that such animals that originate locally “should be destroyed in Northern Ireland”.

USPCA chief executive Stephen Philpott said: “This problem originated in the Republic of Ireland and has resulted in Ulster and Scotland being used as corridors of cruelty.”

The charity also lashed out at the credibility of statements issued by authorities on the row on Wednesday.

“The justified furore on burgers contaminated with horse meat is now being encased in ‘spin’ by vested interests in order to prevent any escalation,” a spokesman said.

“Denial won’t work, if any good is to come from this shocking situation it needs addressed not evaded. The Irish government are telling the public it has confirmed traces of equine DNA. But since when did 28 per cent horse meat content in a burger become a ‘trace’ of DNA?”

Likewise the charity questioned the suggestion that “the Irish beef content is proper, it’s the additives that caused the contamination”, adding: “Since when did 28 per cent horse meat content in a burger become an ‘additive’?”

He also asked how long governments “both north and south [have] known the horse passport system, a key component in protecting horses and humans alike, has more holes than a Swiss cheese?”

A food company at the centre of the row vowed to adopt strict DNA testing of its products to prevent a repeat.

The ABP Food Group, one of Europe’s biggest suppliers and processors, is being investigated by health and agriculture authorities in the UK and the Republic over the row. Two of its subsidiaries, Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton in Yorkshire, supplied beefburgers with traces of equine DNA to supermarkets, including one product classed as 29 per cent horse.

A third company, Liffey Meats, based in Co Cavan, was also found to be supplying products to supermarkets with traces of horse DNA. Suppliers in the Netherlands and Spain have been identified as the possible sources for incorrectly labelled ingredients.

ABP said it had sent auditors to two supplier sites on continental Europe for “unannounced spot checks” while Liffey Meats said it believed the problem came from raw ingredient marked “bovine only” supplied by an EU approved factory. Both companies strongly denied that they had done anything wrong, or been responsible for the crisis.

The scandal was uncovered through routine DNA testing of samples by the southern Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI).

The results, verified in laboratories in Germany, showed horse in beef products sold in Tesco, Lidl, Aldi, Iceland and Dunnes Stores in Ireland. Some burgers were also being sold in the UK but retailers insisted all suspect brands had been taken off the shelves within hours of the findings being released evening.

The Stormont Department of Agriculture and Rural Development said it was aware of the many issues raised by the USCPA.

“DARD’s portal staff routinely check consignments of horses leaving and entering the north, at Larne and Belfast ports, to ensure that they are accompanied by passports,” a spokeswoman said.

“DARD is aware of allegations concerning both the welfare and identification of horses moved to and from Britain. DARD enforcement officers have been assisting investigations with colleagues in both Britain and in the south.”

The News Letter asked professor of Food Safety at Queen’s University Belfast Chris Elliott how consumers could be assured that organised crime gangs had only put horse meat fit for human consumption into the foodchain?

“There is no issue of safety based on the current information,” he said. “That may change if we find out that it involved a 20-year-old horse that was slaughtered in someone’s garage, for example”. He rejected the USCPA’s claims as “speculation”.

The substitution of low quality, low value materials for their authentic counterparts has plagued food production for centuries, he said.

“As we are now in a global food supply chain the chances of such events occurring have increased markedly.”

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