How the horsemeat scandal changed the way the world thinks of food safety – The Irish Times
This month 10 years ago a food scandal erupted in Europe that initially seemed to have originated in Ireland. It led to millions of products being withdrawn from supermarket shelves.
The shocking discovery of horsemeat in what was labelled as beef by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) was quickly to uncover an international fraud at a scale that called into question supply chains across the Continent.
Food companies pointed the finger of blame at each other rather than their mismanagement and quality control deficiencies. Yet again lax regulation within the EU on foods – and particularly meat – was exposed.
The food industry and big meat processors have been radically changed by it because trust in their products evaporated overnight. Improved traceability had to be brought to a new level; it was integral to their survival.
It prompted a major overhaul of food-testing regimes – notably in Ireland, which introduced the most sophisticated DNA testing in an attempt to rescue its reputation for premium foods.
However, a glaring price differential between horsemeat unfit for human consumption and prime beef – a margin that has grown since – means criminal networks will inevitably seek to find the weakest link in supply chains. Despite ramped-up testing backed by rigorous regulations and unprecedented sharing of intelligence, there is evidence to confirm the persistence of this threat, which when realised grossly undermines food provenance.
Emergence of a scandal
The FSAI tested a range of cheap frozen beefburgers and ready meals from supermarkets in November 2012 for the presence of DNA from undeclared other species. It found horse DNA in over one-third of the beefburger samples, and pig in 85 per cent of them.
The majority of beef ready meals also contained pig DNA but not horse. One sample from Tesco turned out to be 29 per cent horse instead of beef. Until then supermarkets and enforcement bodies had not tested for horse in beef products, because no one expected it to be there.
Because the findings were so serious and likely to do huge damage to commercial interests, the FSAI spent two months retesting before announcing its findings on January 15th, 2013, after a Cabinet meeting reviewed what was found. No one knew how long the adulteration had gone on.
The FSAI identified three factories as the source of beef products that had been contaminated or adulterated: Silvercrest Foods in Ireland, Dalepak in Yorkshire and Liffey Meats in Ireland. Silvercrest and Dalepak are both subsidiaries of ABP Food Group, one of the largest beef processors in Europe.
ABP blamed its continental suppliers, with the FSAI saying these were in the Netherlands and Spain. It later said horsemeat had entered its chain through suppliers in Poland.
The Polish authorities denied that Polish companies had supplied beef containing horse meat while ABP insisted it never knowingly provided beef that contained equine DNA to any of its customers. This was confirmed in the findings of the Department of Agriculture’s report on the issue.
Meanwhile huge blocks of frozen meat at a cold store in Northern Ireland, owned by Freeza Foods, which had been quarantined by officials suspicious of its labelling and state of packaging, were found to contain 80 per cent horse.
Freeza Foods said the meat had been delivered to its store by meat broker McAdam Foods but that it had rejected them and only continued storing them as a “goodwill” measure for McAdam. McAdam said the meat had been sold to them by a meat trader in Hull, FlexiFoods, which imported from Poland and elsewhere. This was getting to the heart of the illicit supply network.
Prof Alan Reilly, then FSAI chief executive, reacted with utter disbelief when the first tests came back. When they got verification on January 11th, there was almost 30 per cent horse meat. They were astounded. They thought they had made a mistake. “I thought, ‘You can’t have horse meat in beefburgers’,” Reilly recalls.
He was acutely aware the stakes could not have been higher for the Irish beef sector and the wider European food market where Irish product was exported in huge quantities. He remarked in February 2013: “If I’d got horse meat tests wrong, I would be selling The Big Issue by now.”
They repeated the tests with new samples to make sure it wasn’t a food safety issue. They tested for veterinary drugs – notably “bute”, the veterinary painkilling drug phenylbutazone – and found none present in doses high enough for it to be dangerous to humans.
They had to inform the food manufacturing companies involved, who then told the supermarkets they supplied what was found. Vast quantities of their contaminated products were immediately pulled from shelves. It soon emerged it wasn’t just an Irish problem – it spanned across England, Greece, France and beyond.
Some in Irish media attacked the FSAI for going public on the scandal, “but what we uncovered was a massive international fraud,” Reilly notes.
With the initial main focus on Ireland and especially the FSAI for exposing the fraud, it was a trying period for the agency. “Ireland was in the frame and we didn’t know what was going on. Somebody in Ireland added this to food chain, and we couldn’t provide the answers.”
One major company sent over a UK expert who proceeded to rubbish their testing, but the FSAI was deploying the most effective DNA scanning tool available, known as “targeted testing”. Meanwhile, the fraud dominated world news for days on end; CNN headlined it for weeks.
Tensions with the UK Food Standards Agency disrupted normally good relations as it claimed Ireland had got a tip-off and it had not been told – a line pushed by the beleaguered environment minister at the centre of the scandal at their end, Owen Paterson.
On reflection, Reilly says this was “an early example of fake news” – a looking for excuses when “the Brits did not find it”. Subsequently, he came to believe horsemeat in the European food chain could have been passed off as beef for almost three years.
He alerted the European rapid alert system, only to be told “it was not a food safety issue”. It may have not concerned them but it highlighted a huge gap in that system, he believes. So Reilly personally alerted heads of national food safety authorities, telling them to go out and test products. “And they found way more than us.”
Later in 2013 the European Commission organised a co-ordinated monitoring programme for horsemeat in beef products on the EU market – 4.66 per cent of samples tested positive at levels greater than 1 per cent horsemeat (some samples had 100 per cent horsemeat labelled as beef).
Reilly says in their initial sampling they were not looking for horsemeat. “We were just checking how honestly meat products that consumers had to buy on trust were labelled.”
While deploying novel technology developed by the Irish company IndentiGEN, it was essentially a research tool, he adds. Then when it came to verifying the amount of equine DNA, the food traceability firm were able to quickly develop a new system as pressure was mounting to identify sources.
The scam involved importing cheap horsemeat from Canada, Belgium and Romania and selling it as beef at considerable profit.
Despite a lengthy investigation by the Department of Agriculture, which found fault with several Irish companies, none were prosecuted. “No food company in Ireland was intentionally adding horsemeat to products,” Reilly underlines. Some companies, however, were buying the cheapest possible meat for burgers and mislabelling products without certification or authenticity testing, which is now the norm.
“The long arm of the law eventually caught up with those responsible for fraudulently adding horsemeat to beef products,” he adds.
Custodial sentences were handed down to senior staff in FlexiFoods and Dino & Sons in the UK in 2017, and in the French meat processing company Spanghero in 2019. Dutch trader Johannes Fasen was also given a two-year sentence for mislabelling 500 tonnes of meat sold to the French company Comigel. He was named as the key figure in the illegal meat shipping network.
An investigation by Spanish authorities showed the organisation laundered money and faked animal identity documents to make profitable gains estimated at around €20 million per year by selling chopped-up horsemeat from dead or sick animals as beef.
A Dutch court in 2015 found two meat wholesalers owned by Willy Selten had bought and processed over 330 tonnes of horsemeat in 2011 and 2012, selling it on to customers, including some in Ireland, who believed they were buying pure beef. He was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.
Current FSAI chief executive Dr Pamela Byrne details a radically-changed food inspection regime, reinforced by a tighter regulatory framework and international co-operation directed at tackling food fraud and lack of authenticity in products – all on foot of the horsemeat scandal.
This is evident globally but particularly at EU level, she says. The European Commission has strengthened the legal framework with better controls throughout the food chain. Sharing of information and intelligence through national food safety agencies is swift. Critically, it has heightened awareness of fraud risks when inspectors from a range of State agencies including local authorities inspect premises.
She highlights the success of “Operation Opson”, a Europol and Interpol joint-operation targeting fake and substandard food and beverages.
In 2019 it seized over €100 million worth of potentially dangerous food and drinks. There were more than 670 arrests, with investigations ongoing in many countries. Police, customs, national food regulatory authorities and private sector partners across 78 countries took part in the five-month operation.
Within Ireland, Dr Byrne says whistleblower legislation has improved information flow, which “enables identification of substantial noncompliance”.
Through its work with IndentiGEN, targeted DNA testing has been succeeded by “next-generation sequencing” which successfully detects adulteration of plant ingredients and is likely to be rolled out to testing beef and poultry across the EU. “It is now possible to scan the entire DNA content of a food without any prior knowledge or suspicion of what may or may not be present in that food.”
This capability has been endorsed by the EU’s joint research centre, which is now armed with a knowledge centre for food fraud and quality with a remit to provide up-to-date scientific knowledge (especially on testing), co-ordinate market surveillance activities and operate early warning systems.
On the ground, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) maintains a permanent presence in approved slaughter plants. Regular visits are made to other Department approved meat plants. The frequency of these inspections, which focus primarily on food safety requirements, is determined by a risk assessment, as required under EU legislation, it adds.
The onus of compliance with EU food safety regulations, including traceability requirements, rests in the first instance with food business operators. The Department has a robust and rigorous targeted system of official controls, based on the risk assessments. Official controls and inspections levels are in turn monitored independently by the EU Food and Veterinary Office and by the FSAI under a service contract, it adds.
On horsemeat it has detailed procedures for the slaughter of horses in abattoirs under its supervision and has communicated these and the checks required both to its staff and the business operators. It has also liaised with equine passport issuing agencies in Ireland and has developed protocols to allow abattoir operators to check the details of passports with these agencies to ensure they are valid and that only those horses eligible for slaughter are slaughtered. “Where forged or tampered passports accompanying horses to slaughter are detected such animals are destroyed and removed from the food chain.”
The continuing threat
Horsemeat unfit for human consumption, mislabelled as quality beef, has a notorious reputation for being trafficked by criminal networks.
In 2020 live animals and more than 17 tonnes of horsemeat were seized from slaughterhouses in Belgium, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain. Inspectors found 20 per cent of foreign passports used for the horses showed signs of forgery.
Last year, an investigation by Europol into a criminal network involving the illegal sale of horsemeat in Spain, Belgium, Germany and Italy resulted in the arrest if 41 individuals. While the scale of this illegal activity was small in comparison to 2013, it indicates no room for complacency.
The FSAI and the DAFM supported recent investigations by the EU/Europol in relation to horsemeat fraud.
In July 2013 then minister for agriculture Simon Coveney told TheJournal.ie “most of the problem was as a result of bad management, not illegal management” in the Irish context – Ireland had moved quickly and enhanced its protocols.
“Within 48 hours that scandal became a European scandal and actually, as it turned out, through this process, now that it’s over in some ways the whole horsemeat scandal has enhanced the reputation of the Irish food industry because we’re the ones that actually exposed the problem in the first place,” he said.
As for the FSAI, Reilly says, “we came through it and eventually got recognition for discovering the scandal” – a source of great pride in its response team.
The world thinks of food safety differently as a consequence of the crisis. There was so much emphasis on “salmonella and bugs”, ie hygiene, he says. People had taken their eyes off the ball even though major food fraud dates back to the 19th century. In tandem, it has heightened awareness in the industry. The norm now is to buy nothing on trust and to test it: “Companies no longer buy the cheapest of the cheap.”