Horsemeat possibly in burgers for a year, says FSA

Burgers sold to supermarkets in the UK and Ireland could have been contaminated with horsemeat for as long as a year, the head of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) revealed yesterday.

Giving evidence at the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA) inquiry into the burger contamination scandal yesterday (30 January), FSA chief executive Catherine Brown said Irish plant Silvercrest had been using the Polish supplier named as the source of the contaminated meat for 12 months.

“The probable limit of possibility... is a year because it has been a year that this supplier has been supplying,” she said. “When the Polish get to the bottom of this, we will hope to know whether it’s likely that this has been going on for a year.”

Brown told the Committee that the FSA had not been routinely testing for horsemeat because it “had no intelligence” that such contamination may exist. She said there was “no evidence” so far that the contaminated meat was not safe for human consumption.

Meanwhile, the FSA chairman criticised the Food Safety Authority Ireland (FSAI), which discovered the contamination back in November, for failing to inform UK authorities sooner, adding that the FSA wasn’t aware of the problem until the FSAI released the results of its DNA testing earlier this month.

Speaking on behalf of Tesco, group technical director Tim Smith said that the Irish agriculture minister and FSAI officials had suggested in conversations that they believed the contamination began in May 2012. He added that Tesco auditors had visited the Silvercrest site three times, and that the most recent visit was in May.

Labour MP Barry Gardiner asked Smith why Tesco, a company “notorious for sending back misshapen apples or pears to farmers” had failed to pick up that its beef burgers contained 29% horsemeat. “Surely there is a failure here that is of absolutely extraordinary proportions isn’t there?”

Smith replied that the supermarket carried out audits and checks that went "all the way back up the supply chain", but had not checked the Polish supplier because it was not one of the seven suppliers that Tesco had approved for production of its products. “The fact is that Silvercrest, for whatever reason, chose to use suppliers that we had not approved and audited,” he said.

He added that it was impossible for Tesco to “check a supplier in Poland that we don’t know even exists”.

Questioned on why Tesco had not been testing the authenticity of its meat products, Smith said: “This has not been a risk that was identified as being high on our list of priorities. It is now”. He added that the supermarket had implemented a DNA testing programme on meat and meat products “at our cost”.

The FSAI announced on 15 January that DNA testing had revealed “low levels” of horse DNA in burgers on sale in supermarkets in the UK and Ireland. One burger supplied to Tesco contained 29% horsemeat. Irish plants Silvercrest and Liffey Meats and UK plant Dalepak were named as the suppliers of the burgers.

Irish investigations have traced the contamination at Silvercrest back to an as yet unnamed Polish supplier. Investigations into the source of contamination at Dalepak are ongoing.