Straight from the horse’s mouth

Professor Alan Reilly, chief executive, Food Safety Authority of Ireland
Professor Alan Reilly, chief executive, Food Safety Authority of Ireland

The horse meat controversy dominated headlines for the first few months of this year and ShelfLife has been closely following the story throughout this time. Now Fionnuala Carolan has had the chance to speak with Professor Alan Reilly, chief executive of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland to hear how the FSAI uncovered this European-wide food fraud



12 April 2013

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There has been an awful lot of debate and a huge amount of column inches devoted to covering the horse meat story. However a number of pertinent questions were still hanging in the air. Firstly there was much speculation that the investigation had taken place because the Food Safety Authority of Ireland had been tipped off about the presence of horse meat in the food chain; secondly why did it take them so long to reveal their findings to the public from the first test results and finally, can the implicated companies ever recover from this and win back the consumers’ trust? Professor Alan Reilly is happy to speak to us about the events of recent months now that the investigation is coming to a close. 

No tip off

First and foremost Reilly assures us that there was no tip off about this issue and the findings that were unearthed came from the regular "PC Plod" work of the organisation.

"We never got a tip off and I know it’s been said that we did but we didn’t. We test thousands of samples every year between ourselves and the companies that work under contract for us and 99% of those would come back negative," he explains.

"As part and parcel of the normal work we do here we carry out monitoring and surveillance of the food supply and that’s a routine activity for us. Since 2005, we have been using DNA technologies for looking at the authenticity of specific species in foods. In 2005 we carried out a survey on imported chicken breasts from the Netherlands and we found they contained 54% water. When we looked at the DNA inside the chicken breast they were using beef and pork water binders. So on the back of that study we managed to get the European regulations changed in respect to the designation of chicken meat. That was a huge advance for consumers because up to then they were just being duped."

Another discovery it made in recent times was that farmed Norwegian salmon was being sold as Atlantic smoked salmon by a major fish retailer which was selling the product at a mark-up of 500%. To differentiate between the wild and the farmed species, the FSAI had to do an extensive study on the DNA of salmon, not only Irish salmon but that in Norway and Scotland. 


Ensuring food safety

According to Professor Reilly the job of the FSAI is to make sure that consumers are not misled and to ensure that the industry labels food products correctly. "Back in the middle of November we carried out a survey on the authenticity of certain meat products on sale on the Irish market. So essentially we had to try to put ourselves in the position of someone who would be a dishonest food processor and we came up with the theory that you would cheat on products like pies and lasagnes, gravies, potato covered products, burgers etc. Anywhere where you had culminated meat in a product and you could disguise the flavours and no one would be any the wiser.

"We began the study in mid-November and got the confirmed results in early January. What went on in between that time was testing, retesting, analysis and retesting again. We couldn’t leave anything to chance. The science behind this study had to be robust because as with any study we do, if the science isn’t robust you get yourself into trouble. So when we initially took samples and they came back positive for the presence of equine DNA, we didn’t know what type of levels of equine DNA were in the samples. We just knew they were positive. And when we found some positive results we thought that was unbelievable so we went back and bought more samples on the market and retested those and they came back positive too.

These positive test results were so surprising that the FASI decided to test in other labs in case there was any chance that the problem was with its lab. "Now we knew there wasn’t anything wrong with the lab because we were using this lab for a number of years but to be sure we sent them off to a lab in Germany and ten of the results came back as a 98% correlation between the Dublin lab and the German lab. That was sufficient to say there was nothing wrong with our lab. We tested all the positive samples for bute (an anti-inflammatory drug that’s used on horses but dangerous for human consumption) and luckily everything came back negative so at least we knew it wasn’t a food safety problem."

Cross contamination presumed

When the FSAI first discovered the trace levels of horse meat, they assumed it was a problem with cross contamination as there would have been no commercial gain in adding less than 1% horse meat to a beef product. 

"We didn’t want to go out and tell people we were testing for horse meat in burgers because that would have done a whole lot more damage and to be quite honest, we didn’t really think we were going to uncover such a major food fraud but we were finding something that we needed to tell the industry that they had low levels of equine and traces of ovine in some beef products and they needed to look at it and see where the contamination was getting in because with the really low levels there was no commercial gain of adding something less than 1% so we suspected it was a case of cross contamination in plants that were processing multi species. That’s where we thought things were going wrong so there was no need to make a big song and dance about it. It was a matter of getting on to manufacturers and telling them to find the source and fix it and we would come back in about six months’ time and repeat our study. 

"Knowing that horse meat is a no no in Irish food we knew there would be a bit of a backlash but didn’t realise the extent of that backlash. When you are doing that type of work you don’t want to be going out and wrecking an industry just based on a rumour. That’s why it took us around two months to evaluate what was going on because if we had come out half-cooked, I wouldn’t be talking to you today. The rigour of the signs and the methods that we use have to be spot on." 

How much DNA?

So while it had been established there was equine DNA present in some beef products they needed to get an estimate of the amount present. Eventually on the 11 January, the FSAI got results from both the German lab and the Dublin lab to say that one burger (Tesco Value Burger) contained over 29% equine DNA and there were lower levels of porcine DNA in some products. Reilly says that this was on Friday 11 January at around 5 o’clock so they went home and had a long think over the weekend about what the next step would be.

While he was aware this would reflect badly on the Irish food industry, he emphasises that the equine DNA was only found in a very small part of the meat industry and didn’t affect fresh meat at all. "From my viewpoint it didn’t reflect at all on the wider beef industry and beef producers. We never thought for one moment and still don’t think that there is any problem with our beef sector. It was just a small segment of the industry where we had the problem."

Informing government

Prior to this the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health were informed that the FSAI was doing some type of a study as they had involved the Department of Agriculture in going into one of the plants and looking at some of the raw materials in order to collect samples. "We specifically told both departments that there was no reason for them to take any action or there was no action required by any Minister. We briefed them on the same Monday in January that we met with both factories concerned; Silvercrest and Liffey Meats. They informed their customers and immediately supermarkets took many different lines of products off the shelves."

Reilly says that the FSAI probably wouldn’t have gone to the press until they had met with all the retailers but as they were doing this the press were already on the story so there wasn’t a choice. "We couldn’t turn around to the press and say we’re not telling you. So we went out with that press release and put the results in the public domain. And from there it just went on and on and today it is still going on with the withdrawal of some chicken nugget products in Greece just over the weekend."

Why did it happen?

Reilly says that economic downturn and pressure on pricing is the reason why this food fraud would have begun. "You can pick up horse meat, the type that would go into these products, for anything between €700-€900 a tonne whereas beef would be up around €3,500 – €4,000 a tonne so you can see here where the advantages are. There are about 400,000 horses that go into the food chain in Europe each year. The sources coming into Ireland came from Poland, Romania and Tajikistan. Those were the three routes of supply. 

"And essentially horse meat is either being relabelled and sold on as beef and is going into products as beef as was the case with Findus (100% horsemeat being sold as a beef lasagne) or it’s mixed in with beef as in the Irish case where the meat came in directly from Poland, through traders in the UK and was mixed in with horsemeat there and sent here.

"I think there is a very sinister aspect to all of this in that it’s distorted the level playing field of fair competition, which is the basis for you bidding for a contract to supply major supermarkets. If the basis for that was that you knew you were going to supply horse meat and put it into beef products, a legitimate processor who was only using beef, would lose out on the contract and that’s actually happened."

Supermarkets innocent or not

Reilly admits that the supermarkets were certainly sucked in as the innocent victims but also urges us not to forget that the policy of continuously driving the price down can be attributed to the multinationals and could be one of the reasons these kinds of practices were born. "The kind of business models that we are currently operating in and the whole food production chain means that if you have one very strong link putting pressure on price, the temptation is to find cheaper raw ingredients and essentially that was one of the underpinning factors that drove our study. I think supermarkets with respect to their pricing and what they are willing to pay for goods is not really a food safety issue but is something that people should be conscious of."

Spreading across Europe

Once the problem had been identified, containing it was a whole new challenge. For the first week or two after the story broke it was very much an Irish problem but it quickly became a European issue. "It wasn’t until other countries began to test with the type of technology that we had tested with that they began to find problems. It moved from Irish companies to major international brands like Findus, Nestlé, Lidl, Aldi, Tesco and Ikea. And then one country after another was implicated and it very much snowballed. We’re now finding traders in Vienna selling beef kebabs which are actually horse and another guy in Copenhagen making pizzas with toppings that turned out to be horse and it just went on and is still going on."

At this point in the investigation Reilly points out that the European Commission has now picked up the ball and has decided to test all manufactured beef products on the European market. "Some of the countries are using Eliza testing, which is an amino acid where you can pick up the proteins in the flesh of different species. We’re also working with the retailers, caterers and the manufacturers where they are doing private testing on their products, and reporting into us."

Global food chain

Reilly believes that there were probably a lot of innocent parties involved in this scandal. "A lot of the Irish manufacturers who would have been buying on face value, thinking they were buying some beef that was a little cheaper but didn’t think at all that they were getting horsemeat. Most of the individuals here would be innocent victims. It’s the nature of the global food chain in that it’s getting longer and the longer the food chain, the more things that can go wrong. 

Trying to determine who broke the law is the difficult part. There is an investigation ongoing at the moment by the special investigation unit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and they are collaborating with gardaí and with their European counterparts and Europol. "It’s gone beyond food regulations", says Reilly. "We are now into a criminal investigation. We would be advising on that type of investigation but certainly not leading on it and we are very happy that someone else is doing it."

Minister Simon Coveney played a large part in leading the investigation and Reilly credits him with having given good political leadership when it was needed. "All you had to do is read the newspapers every day. Our job is to advise ministers and to give the best possible information to underpin that advice and essentially, that’s what we have done in this case. 

"The one positive from the whole affair is that you have an official food control system in Ireland that has uncovered this whole mess, and that we’re here doing the job we’re set up to do and we’re not afraid to call it when we do find something wrong. And we are contributing to greater consumer protection across the whole of Europe, and are now going to see new methods for testing for species to ensure this never happens again."

The end in sight

When the final results of monitoring meat products across Europe comes back in the middle of this month, Reilly is hoping this will all come to a close. "That should be a watershed and I think the industry has woken up to what is going on and I think we will move on from here. What will happen in the future is that it will become the norm to test for different species right across the whole industry in Europe and elsewhere in the world."

The long term damage of a controversy like this has yet to be measured but Reilly believes that the companies involved can recover. "If you look at the likes of Tesco for instance, Tesco was out twice a week apologising, coming out with their hands up and saying what they are going to do about it. And some of the manufacturers that were involved have already moved on. They have put species testing in place, so they are not waiting for someone to tell them to do it, they’ve already done it and they are using this now as a marketing tool to get the confidence of their customers back."




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