Horsemeat: EFRA committee questions Freeza Meats

What has the meat industry learnt from the horsemeat scandal? This was the question posed by the EFRA committee to recently retired commercial director of Freeza Meats James Fairbairn, to which he replied, “Don’t do favours for anyone.”

Fairbairn was referring to the discovery of the mislabelled horsemeat stored at Freeza Meats earlier in the year, which he claimed was the property of meat trader McAdam Foods. He was speaking to the EFRA committee at the House of Commons, in the latest food contamination hearing into the horsemeat scandal that broke in January.

Committee chair Anne McIntosh MP asked Fairbairn if he would normally make a habit of storing meat for business partners. “No, and partner would not be an appropriate word,” he replied, in what was to become an intensive and probing session. “He [McAdam] was a trader certainly known to us and we would have dealt with him pretty infrequently in the past,” Fairbairn said.

Stored as a favour

According to Fairbairn, the reason Freeza Meats was storing what they assumed to be beef was because McAdam had a problem. “He had a particular problem one weekend, approaching us on 18 August, when a parcel had been refused by Silvercrest Foods,” he said. He told the committee Freeza Foods was only due to store the meat for a week, as McAdam was unable to store it.

When McIntosh asked about the condition of the meat and whether it looked like horsemeat to Fairbairn, he said it was very badly wrapped, freezer-burnt, with some of the beef exposed and sitting on splintered dirty wooden pallets. “We wrapped it with cling-wrap and labelled it ‘for storage only, do not touch’,” he said.

When McIntosh asked about the Polish labels on the meat, Fairbairn replied that this was the first time a consignment of Polish meat had come to Freeza Meats. “How often would you get consignments with a Polish label?” she asked. “That’s the only one I’m aware of, a totally isolated case,” he said.

Supplier unknown

When asked who supplied the meat, Fairbairn replied that he did not know who the supplier was, but had isolated the meat until McAdam was able to collect it, which should have been within a week.

“Who was the supplier?” McIntosh asked again. “You must have been told to expect a call from that supplier, who were going to come and inspect the meat,” she said. But Fairbairn said he just wanted “shot of it”.

He then explained, the local environmental health officer (EHO) came in September and refused the consignment movement without EHO approval. As a result, the meat had been in Freeza Meat storage for around two weeks by this time.

“The visit from the EHO in September, that was when you first discovered that this was actually equine and not beef, is that correct?” asked MP Barry Gardiner. “No, EHO came, saw the beef consignment in the condition I reported earlier and said it was not going into the food chain. Nothing to do with equine in September,” Fairbairn answered.

Who owned the meat?

Confused discussion broke out about whether McAdam had offered Freeza Meats the opportunity to purchase the consignment, but Fairbairn denied any knowledge. He said McAdam may have “quipped” that Fairbairn might want to buy it after seeing it. “Doesn’t sound like a quip does it?” queried Gardiner and quoted Freeza Meats as saying in a previous statement that, in August 2012, it was approached by  McAdam to buy the consignment, but refused.

Gardiner then drew on a statement from McAdam, which said it would only import meat if it was paid for and questioned why, in that case, McAdam was storing the meat and not Silvercrest, if the consignment had been refused by Silvercrest. Fairbairn retorted that this was pure speculation, adding: “I’m telling you, I’m giving you my evidence as to what I know what happened. It is totally contrary to the story he told us.”

Loss of business

Fairbairn then made a statement of his own accord about the train of events that led to Freeza Meats losing a deal and being accused of storing horsemeat. He said: “That product stayed in our cold store over a period incorporating the 19 January, when the horse bolted from Silvercrest. It was being kept as a hostage – it should have been destroyed.

“There was no mention of equine until the 19 January, so why was the consignment detained for five months? After 19 January, when it blew, we were asked by retailers when we could start [making] burgers.” He asked the Committee how they thought the compant felt when they found that McAdam consignment contained horsemeat.

Fairbairn further stated: “For the life of me, I cannot understand how the product was left in store for five months. I cannot understand how the FSA in Belfast made the statement on the website without understanding what it could do to us.” He implied that the wording on the FSA’s website portrayed Freeza Meats as being the owner of the horsemeat and not McAdam and said it caused the loss of jobs.