Northern Ireland-based Freeza Meats’ commercial director James Fairbairn told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee yesterday (May 14) that he believed the fraud had been carried out by a “big organisation and for a long period of time”.
When pushed to specify the source of the contamination, Fairbairn said it had to be of European origin as Ireland lacked the volumes of horses to carry out such a widespread contamination.
"I couldn't conceive it originated in the British Isles,” he said. “The volumes of horsemeat required to create a contamination on this scale are not in the UK. I can only conclude it was of European origin.”
Fairbairn said he was “pretty certain” the Food Safety Authority Ireland (FSAI), which first detected the contamination, had acted on a clear tip-off when inspecting products for horsemeat.
His comments were made despite FSAI chief executive Professor Alan Reilly telling the committee in April that the FSAI had not acted on any specific intelligence when it decided to start testing products for horsemeat last year and identified extensive contamination.
‘Acting on sound common sense’
“We weren’t acting on a tip-off, we were acting on sound common sense,” Reilly claimed.
Regarding the chances of discovering a product found to contain 29% horsemeat as it had, Reilly said: “That one burger was like winning the Lotto.”
However, Elizabeth Moran, president of the Association of Public Analysts, suggested that it was more usual for such testing to be based on information received or based on risk.
She told the same April meeting: “Sampling isn’t particularly well targeted. It’s only as good as the intelligence it is based on.”
She also said that local authorities in the UK had to target testing based on the risk posed. “I would recommend targeted sampling … we have not been instructed to test for horse DNA because there isn’t intelligence … But there have been examples in the past after the Second World War – a huge case of horsemeat fraud.”
EFRA Committee members had previously suggested that the seemingly softly, softly approach adopted by the FSAI was so as not to damage Ireland’s beef export industry, which is so important to the Republic’s economy.
Gardiner yesterday also suggested the FSAI had intelligence horsemeat was being used in beef products and carried out tests to reveal the extent of a problem it already suspected.
Gardiner asked the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA’s) chief executive Catherine Brown if she felt the FSAI had used unaccredited tests to avoid companies involved facing prosecution.
Brown rejected this view. She suggested the testing methodology was used to discover whether horsemeat contamination was widespread. It was the view made at the April meeting by the FSAI’s Reilly.
Sampled from the same batch
When asked whether further samples could have been taken from the same batch of products – allowing a prosecution – and whether the FSA would have done this, Brown agreed: “You could have gone back and sampled from the same batch and tested to lead to prosecution. We would have done this.”
Steve Wearne, interim director of food safety at the FSA, added that the appropriate methodology was to test to see if foreign species were present in a product, then identity the species and determine the amount.
“This was the methodology used by the FSAI,” said Wearne. “This basic methodology is sound and what we would use in the UK.”
Andrew Rhodes, operations director at the FSA, reported that two arrests had been made so far as a result of horsemeat contamination incidents. The individuals had been bailed awaiting a decision on further action, he said.
Meanwhile, Rhodes is taking part in the Food Manufacture Group’s free one-hour webinar dedicated to learning the lessons of the horsemeat crisis, which takes place tomorrow, May 16 at 11am GMT.
Joining him will be Professor Tony Hines of Leatherhead Food Research, Kiti Soininen of Mintel and Hilary Ross of business law firm and online event sponsor DWF.
Book your free place here.