Environment, Food and Rural Affairs CommitteeSupplementary written evidence submitted by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland


On Tuesday 23 April 2013 the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), by invitation, provided oral evidence to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRA).

This submission is made in the context of this appearance and it addresses issues under two headings:

(A)the statutory role of the FSAI and the background to its exposure of the horsemeat scandal.

(B)issues raised during the course of the Committee’s hearing on 23 April 2013.

(A) The Statutory Role of the FSAI and the Background to its Exposure of the Horsemeat Scandal

(i) Context

This issue is addressed because, notwithstanding an arrangement agreed with the Committee prior to the meeting of 23 April that the representatives of the FSAI would be allowed to make a brief introductory statement, the Chair—without any prior consultation—decided not to permit this; accordingly, it is considered that there should be a record of what would have been said by the FSAI representatives if the agreed <?oasys [np ?>arrangements had been allowed to stand.1 However, in view of the course and conduct of the meeting, the information now supplied is considerably more extensive than was originally intended.

(ii) Role of the FSAI

The FSAI was established in 1999 as a national body with responsibility for the enforcement of food law in Ireland. It is a statutory, independent and science-based agency, dedicated to protecting public health and consumer interests in the area of food safety. The FSAI was set up to be independent of the food industry and we operate under the aegis of the Minister for Health. The FSAI receives its annual allocation from the Health Vote. Ultimate political accountability for the FSAI is a matter for the Minister for Health.

The FSAI’s principal function is to take all reasonable steps to ensure that food consumed, distributed, marketed or produced in Ireland meets the highest standards of food safety and hygiene. We are also charged with bringing about the general acceptance that the primary responsibility for the safety of food is borne by the food industry across the food chain. Over the past 14 years, the FSAI has worked in partnership with all interested parties to ensure a consistent standard of enforcement of food legislation and to underpin food law with science-based risk assessment.

(iii) Surveillance and Monitoring of the Food Chain

The FSAI oversees an extensive programme of food testing in Ireland. Annual monitoring programmes are agreed with official agencies that work under service contract to the FSAI. Based on a collective risk assessment, these programmes cover a diverse range of microbial and chemical compounds that are tested in a network of official laboratories. Each year, the FSAI organises additional surveys, of which the November 2012 survey on the authenticity of meat products was one.

Surveillance, sampling and analysis are recognised activities for official control purposes under EU law. The aim is consumer protection, compliance, and the identification of areas where enforcement attention is required.

(iv) Survey of Beef Products November 2012

In November 2012, the FSAI selected beef meat products for examination. As was the case in earlier surveys we conducted on the authenticity of chicken fillets and smoked wild and farmed fish, we used sophisticated molecular analytical techniques (real time PCR) to differentiate between the animal species present.

We sampled 19 salami products, 31 beef meal products and 27 beef burger products from major retail outlets. We tested these for bovine, porcine and equine content using DNA profiling.

It will be noted that, at this stage, there was no particular concern about the possible presence of horsemeat—it was one of three ingredients being looked at.

The FSAI does not maintain its own laboratory, so testing in this case was contracted out to specialist laboratories.

(v) Survey Results

The first sets of results were all qualitative (ie presence or absence) and were received by the FSAI on 30 November 2012.

Of the 19 salami products analysed, 10 tested positive for bovine DNA, all were positive for porcine DNA and equine DNA was not detected. These results were not surprising and there were no significant issues with the salami products that warranted further concern or investigation.

Of the 31 beef meal products (cottage pie, beef curry pie, lasagne, etc), all were positive for bovine DNA, while 21 (68%) were positive for porcine DNA and none were found to contain equine DNA. Only two of these beef meal products declared on the label that they contained pork—which was found at very low levels—and therefore, we considered its presence may be unintentional and due to cross-over from processing of different animal species in the same plant.

However, of the 27 burger products analysed, all were positive for bovine DNA, while 23 (85%) were positive for porcine DNA and 10 (37%) were positive for equine DNA. Most of the burgers positive for porcine DNA were not labelled as containing pork—which was found at very low levels. Again we considered its presence may be unintentional and due to cross-over from processing of different animal species in the same plant.

The 27 burgers which were tested in this study came from nine different manufacturers, six in Ireland and three in the UK. The burger products which tested positive for equine DNA came from three plants, two in Ireland and one in the UK.

At the time, the detection of equine DNA in 10 beef burgers was highly surprising and of major concern. None of these products were labelled as containing horse meat.

As a precaution, the laboratory was asked to sequence the positive DNA (PCR-bands) to ensure that the DNA detected was of equine and porcine origin. This was later confirmed to be the case by the laboratory on 10 December 2012.

(vi) Re-confirmation of Positive Results

Nevertheless, in view of the likelihood of possible further action, and also because of the possible reputational risk to the FSAI, we decided that the positive results needed to be re-confirmed and, consequently, the following steps were taken -

On 10 December 2012, we purchased additional burger samples from the same or from similar batches to the original samples that tested positive. Results for these extra set of samples were received on 18 December 2012- and again all were positive for equine DNA.

On 21 December 2012, for the avoidance of doubt, 20 sub-samples (10 positives and 10 negatives) from the initial 27 samples were taken from the testing laboratory (Identigen in Ireland) and were sent as blind samples to the Eurofins laboratory in Germany for additional independent testing.

All results up to this date were qualitative—which indicated the presence or absence of equine DNA, but not the amount. Both laboratories were therefore asked to quantify the amount of equine DNA in the samples.

On 21 December 2012, the FSAI also requested the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to obtain samples of raw ingredients from the two implicated meat processing plants. These were sent to the Identigen laboratory on 4 January 2013 and results received on 11 January 2013. These showed very low or trace levels of equine DNA in beef products from The Netherlands, Spain and Ireland. These products however were not identified as the ingredients in the burgers that tested positive. We advised our counterparts in Spain and The Netherlands of our findings.

The quantitative results were received by the FSAI late on the late evening of Friday 11 January 2013. Of the 10 burger products that tested positive for equine DNA all but one were at low levels. The quantification of the horse DNA in this one burger product gave an estimated amount of 29% equine DNA relative to beef DNA in the burger product (this product was manufactured by Silvercrest on behalf of Tesco).

The FSAI is conscious that the programme of re-testing and re-confirmation summarised above may be seen as over meticulous. We were dealing with an unprecedented situation and were developing responses as it unfolded. We had to be 100% certain that the results were correct. We were also conscious that if such confirmation were not obtained, we would have been criticised for not obtaining it.

In any event, these were the calls we made at the time and we stand over them.

The FSAI made a public announcement of its findings on 15 January 2013. It is relevant to recall that the first indication that there was a problem was received on 30 November 2012: given the complexity of the situation and the time required to run tests this lapse of time is reasonable.

(B) Issues Raised During the Course of the Committee’s Hearing on 23 April 2013

(i) Testing for Phenylbutazone

Phenylbutazone (colloquially known as “bute”) is a commonly used medicine in horses: once administered to a horse, the animal is not allowed in the food chain.

Committee’s Query

During the oral evidence session on 23 April 2013, the Chair asked for information on testing in Ireland for the presence of phenylbutazone.

The FSAI Response

When assessing risk, the FSAI bases all its decisions on sound science. In the case of our survey samples in November 2012, we evaluated the potential risks, one of which was the presence of residues of animal drugs. The burgers that tested positive for horse DNA were tested for the presence of a range of animal remedies—including phenylbutazone—by the State Laboratory on 10 December 2012. The FSAI received results on 19 December 2012. All were negative. No food samples tested by the FSAI have proved positive for phenylbutazone.

Additional Information on Phenylbutazone Testing

As part of the EU co-ordinated control programme organised by the European Commission, all horses received at horse abattoirs during March 2013 were tested for phenylbutazone and the meat was not released until the test result was known. Of the 840 horses tested in Ireland, one was positive for phenylbutazone: the carcass in question was detained and destroyed and therefore, did not enter the food chain.

In contrast, it is perhaps noteworthy that, as part of the same EU co-ordinated control programme, during the same period, the UK tested 836 horses of which 14 were positive for phenylbutazone. Across Europe a total of 3,232 samples of horsemeat were taken of which 17 tested positive, the majority being the 14 from the UK.

(ii) Not an Isolated Case

The finding of 29% equine DNA in one sample was not an isolated case.

In January 2013, we did not have an explanation of the finding of 29% equine DNA relative to beef DNA in the single burger sample. However, subsequent testing in the UK—and elsewhere—revealed similar results in processed beef products, which clearly indicated that the issue of substituting horsemeat for processed beef was a widespread practice in Europe. Two months after the FSAI published its findings, a pan-European testing programme ,organised at the request of the European Commission, showed that around 5% of the beef products tested on sale in EU Member States contained horsemeat at a level above 1%, with some countries finding up to 13% adulteration. The discovery by the FSAI was surprising at the time, but is far less so in retrospect, given the practices we now know were taking place across Europe. It is now evident that the problem was not just confined to Ireland and the UK, as most countries in Europe became involved. The scale of the scandal is unprecedented. Numerous foods—beef burgers, beef meals, pasta dishes, pies, meat balls, kebabs, chicken nuggets—were found to be adulterated with horsemeat and were removed from sale. One recall alone in The Netherlands involved 50,000 tonnes of meat and the scandal extended as far afield as Hong Kong, Singapore and the Caribbean. Leading international food brands and retailers were caught in a web of deception that was perpetuated in Europe for at least a year and possibly longer.

(iii) Laboratory Competence

The issue of the competence of the laboratories used by the FSAI to conduct these tests has been raised.

The FSAI Response

The FSAI wishes to state that attempts to cast doubt on the veracity and robustness of the DNA testing carried on its behalf by a number of laboratories smack of “shooting the messenger” and are disingenuous and without merit.


The FSAI confirms that for its survey on equine DNA in beef products, it employed the services of two internationally recognised laboratories—in the first instance Identigen in Ireland and later, Eurofins Laboratories in Germany. The tests by Eurofins confirmed both the positive and negative findings by Identigen.

The FSAI is confident about the competence of both laboratories, which operate quality management systems that are accredited to the European Standard EN ISO/IEC 17025:2005.

The particular test method used by Eurofins to identify the equine DNA is included in its scope of accreditation. In Identigen’s case, the lack of current accreditation for its test method does not invalidate its test findings on the FSAI’s samples, as these have been corroborated and demonstrated as accurate by the accredited confirmatory tests undertaken by Eurofins. The services of both laboratories continue to be used by regulators and industry alike across Europe. The Food Standards Agency, UK (FSA, UK) uses the Eurofins laboratory as one of the laboratories for its current testing programme.

(iv) Informing the Food Standards Agency, UK

The EFRA Committee is concerned that the FSAI informed FSA, UK of the position on 14 January 2013, the day before the FSAI issued its first press release and not earlier.

The FSAI Response

It is important to note that the FSAI was careful to ensure that its survey results were reliable and scientifically sound. Given the likely implications for trade and consumer confidence, the FSAI was also careful not to be the source or cause of unfounded rumours about the authenticity of processed beef products in retail sale. For these reasons, it only informed the food business operators affected and relevant Government officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Health, who then informed their Ministers, on Monday 14 January 2013, about the results of the confirmatory tests that were received late on Friday 11 January 2013. The FSA, UK was informed on the same day—14 January 2013.

If the Committee feels that the FSA, UK should have been informed earlier, it may wish (having regard to the sequence of events set out above) indicate when this communication should have taken place. In addition, the Committee might also wish to consider when the FSA, UK would have advised the FSAI had the situation been reversed? It now appears from reports from the BBC that the FSA, UK was aware that it had a problem with phenylbutazone in horsemeat as far back as November 2012 and that it chose to ignore as the cost of testing would have shut the industry down.

The FSAI and the Food Standards Agency, Northern Ireland (FSA, NI) meet regularly and co-operate frequently on many levels, particularly in relation to food incidents. On 23 November 2012, at a scheduled meeting between the senior management teams of the FSAI and the FSA, NI, the FSAI informed FSA, NI of the survey work which was in progress, and of the development of test methodology for horse DNA. The FSAI also informed FSA, UK’s chief scientist on 10 January 2013 that authenticity checks on beef products were underway.

It is worth noting neither the FSA, UK nor any other food control body, including private inspection bodies, were carrying out checks on the authenticity of beef products in retail sale over this period. It is now clear that the practice of substituting horsemeat for beef in processed products was widespread across Europe and went on unknown and undetected in many countries. As was mentioned by the FSAI on 23 April 2013, had it not been for the FSAI’s initiative, British consumers would still be eating horsemeat.

(v) EFRA Committee Theories

Suggested Prior Knowledge of the FSAI

During the EFRA Committee’s session on 23 April 2013, one member, Mr Barry Gardiner MP, advanced a theory that the FSAI was aware of adulteration of processed beef with horsemeat in Ireland and had tried and failed to get the industry to “clean up its act”. He further suggested that the FSAI set about organising a survey using a test method which was unaccredited and sampling and other methods which would not be admissible in court proceedings, all with the aim of proving the undeclared use of horsemeat, restoring order in the industry but avoiding legal actions.

The FSAI Response

This theory is a bizarre fabrication, without merit and is not supported by any facts. The FSAI had no knowledge prior to the survey that beef ingredients in Ireland or elsewhere (widely throughout the EU, as it transpired) were adulterated with horsemeat; there had been no instruction to industry to “clean up its act”; the test methods used were accredited, and survey samples were, and are, regularly used by the FSAI in monitoring the food chain.

The FSAI also wishes to express its concern that Mr Gardiner MP had in his possession transcripts of a private conversation between the Chief Executive of the FSAI and Ms. Catherine Brown, Chief Executive of the FSA, UK. A record was taken of this conversation by Ms Brown without the knowledge of the FSAI and subsequently released without the consent from the FSAI. The conversation, partly speculative on the part of the FSAI, took place early on in the horsemeat investigations and at a time when few of the facts were known. The FSAI is also concerned that the placing of some of this information in the public domain may be in breach of the EU rules on the protection of professional secrecy.

Suggested “Tip-off”

Another theory that was proposed during the oral evidence session was that the FSAI acted on a “tip-off”. The FSAI wishes to reiterate that the survey of beef products was a routine, albeit infrequent survey. It was not based on a tip off or so called “intelligence”. It was based on common sense and a detailed understanding of the food chain which we are required to police. In any event, why would the FSAI seek to cover up that it had received a tip-off—if this were the case? Acting on tip-offs is a recognised response by any enforcement body: it is entirely uncontroversial.

The EFRA Committee contention that FSAI had acted on a “tip off” seems to rely on assertions by the FSA, UK and on reported comments of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. However, it is understood that when the issue arose, the latter was contacted by his Irish counterpart, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who clarified the matter.

(vi) Cost of the FSAI November 2012 Survey

The EFRA Committee also asked about the cost of the survey conducted by FSAI in November 2012. As mentioned earlier, the FSAI engaged the services of two laboratories. Sample test costs varied from €50 to €300 depending on whether the test was qualitative or quantitative, the type of DNA quantified and which laboratory was used. The total cost for the multiple testing of the 77 samples was of the order of €14,500.

(vii) Source of Adulterated Meat

British Press Analysis

During the meeting of 23 April 2013, the Chair stated that the Committee “had compiled from the British Press (so not the Irish, French or Polish Press?) . a table that shows that by far and away the largest numbers of contamination relate to Ireland and Irish Companies”.

The FSAI Response

By way of a general comment, this has more to say about the priorities and editorial judgement of the British press than anything else. The FSAI is of the view that surveys of press coverage are neither a scientific nor a reliable method of establishing the source of adulterated meat or meat products. Also, a brief examination of the notifications from the EU’s Rapid Alert for Food and Feed (RASFF) on adulteration of meat products shows that at least 23 countries were the source of such products and the raw materials used came from at least 14 of those countries.


The FSAI survey demonstrated that modern analytical techniques are essential in combating food fraud. The FSAI’s survey uncovered a widespread and illegal practice across Europe which up to then had gone unnoticed and undetected. As a direct result of the FSAI’s work food control agencies, the European Commission, manufacturers and major retailers have taken action to prevent a recurrence. Exposure of the malpractice will result in the improved protection of the consumer in Ireland, the UK and elsewhere.

May 2013

1 The FSAI requested the Committee secretariat to inquire as to the possibility of making an opening statement. The Committee did not agree to this request.

Prepared 15th July 2013